A little-known but common practice among school districts has them hiring investigators to follow kids home, snap pictures and video, trace parents’ license plates, and follow their cars around in unmarked vehicles. Sometimes, these investigations land parents in jail.
Why? Residency fraud. It is illegal for many families to pick their child’s public school. Because there are great disparities between public school quality and what districts spend through local property taxes, children illegally crossing district lines can cost schools thousands of dollars per child per year.
There is no federal data on residency fraud, according to researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics, and states likewise rarely catalog such incidents. Thus it’s difficult to tell whether increased media attention to a few cases signals more fraud or just more attention.
New technology not available two years ago allows school districts to more quickly and cheaply identify potential fraudsters, said James Mesis, owner of VerifyResidence.com. Mesis developed patented software that compares fraud databases with school rosters to identify potential fraudsters for district residency officers.
On average, Mesis says, 0.5 to 1 percent of a school’s roster surface as potential frauds.
“It’s a big deal to people who are paying very high taxes and can’t afford it and those taxes are the result of the number of kids in the school system,” he said. “For every person that objects to verifying the residence, there are just as many who say, “This is fantastic. How much of my tax dollars are paying for kids that didn’t live in the district?'”
Recent High-Profile Incidents
Most states require school districts to verify students are district residents, which ended up frightening one Oklahoma mom. A residency investigator without an ID visited Kendall Bible’s home in June and asked to see her 12-year-old daughter’s bedroom and belongings.
Last year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich pardoned single mom Kelley Williams-Bolar for committing residency fraud felonies to get her two daughters into a better suburban public school. The incident received national attention.
Stealing Property Taxes?
Districts prosecuting illegal students’ families are simply guarding their income, which most families paying local property taxes appreciate, says Randall Reback, an assistant economics professor at Columbia University.
“Communities want to protect their local resources by keeping [schools] an exclusive club where you have to live in the right district to go to their schools,” he said.
Reback and two other researchers recently studied the effect of school choice on property values. They found school choice, in the form of open enrollment and to a much larger extent vouchers, boosts property values in poor neighborhoods because people can choose to live in the cheaper area yet still send their children to good schools. School choice reduces property values in nearby rich areas, because people no longer have to live there to get better schools.
When moving to nicer areas, middle-class and wealthier families essentially choose to tax themselves more in exchange for access to better public schools, thus paying a tuition poor people cannot, Reback said.
Illegal attendees devalue nearby homes and dilute local property tax revenue, he said—prime reasons for districts to crack down.
Impact on Kids
Parents desperate enough to lie and pretend they live elsewhere to enroll their child in a particular school often have reasons beyond academics, Mesis said. In his 20 years of investigative work, he’s met hundreds of such families.
Some parents ditch their assigned school because another is closer to work or has a baseball team where their child will stand out, he said. Or the parents have recently divorced and don’t want to further disrupt their child’s life by switching his or her school. Districts often check on parents of extremely expensive special-needs children, he said.
Mesis says “over 90 percent” of such cases end with the children leaving the schools when caught, not in sensational arrests or lawsuits for the money lost.
“You’re teaching the kid to lie, and it’s ok to lie if your daddy says it’s ok,” he said. “Half the time the kids are the first ones who blurt out where they live.”
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