Proposal would decriminalize sending children to the wrong school

Calling the practice of arresting parents who send their child to the wrong school unconstitutional, the Senate chairman of legislature’s Judiciary Committee and the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus are calling for change.

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said the criminal penalties that parents and grandparents face need to be immediately removed and he plans to have his committee vote on a bill Friday that would do just that.

“Given the circumstances that prevail through many of our school districts… we can hardly blame the parent for not idly sitting by and doing nothing,” Coleman said during a press conference Wednesday at the state Capitol complex. He was flanked by several members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

“The last thing, I feel, that we want to do is to criminalize [this] behavior,” he said.

The bill, which was first proposed last year following two high-profile cases of parents and grandparents being arrested in Connecticut, is certain to face some pushback.

The state’s prosecutors’ office told lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee this week that the proposal is “an overreaction” and that “there is no demonstrated need” for a change in law.

Advocates of the bill acknowledge that few people in Connecticut have actually been prosecuted for sending their child to the wrong school, but that doesn’t make it fair for those who are.

Marie Manard, who says her two grandsons stayed at her house three days a week while her teenage daughter worked and went to school, is one of the few people who has been arrested.

She was charged with stealing an education by using her address so her grandchildren could go to a Stratford elementary school.
Being booked by police “was very humiliating,” she said at the Capitol complex Wednesday.

The state Supreme Court decades ago ruled that a child does not need to be formally adopted to establish residency in a town, and the right to a free public education shall be given to anyone who lives in the district by the “ordinary and popular meaning.”

This problem of people sending their kids to the wrong school is one that legislators say they often hear stories about. Most recently, Andrea Comer, the governor’s nominee for appointment to the State Board of Education, was targeted back in 2002 by Windsor Public Schools for keeping her child enrolled in the district after she moved to Hartford. She was not arrested.

A criminal offense?

Gwen Samuel is sick of waiting for her children’s school to improve. Her four children attend school in Meriden, one of the lowest-performing districts in the state.

“I will use the McDonald’s address to get my child a good education… Don’t penalize me for doing what’s best for my children,” said Samuel, who leads the Connecticut’s Parents Union.

While many legislators are sympathetic to her all-too-familiar situation, there is consensus that something needs to be in place to deter parents from sending their child to the wrong school.

“We should hold these people accountable. There should be some type of ramification and accountability,” said Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

She said she has not decided whether that should include criminal penalties, and possibly jail time.

The proposed bill that leadership says will be amended Friday would still allow districts to expel ineligible students after school officials hold a hearing. It would also allow the district to sue for tuition reimbursement. In Stratford, where Manard’s grandson went to school for three years before the district forced him to leave, the district’s average cost to educate each student is $7,493 a year.

A national trend?

Several states have changed their laws in recent years to address issues that arrise with residency requirements, and to strengthen the ability for people to appeal a student being expelled because his or her zip code is wrong, reports the Education Commission of the States.
Kathy Christie, a vice president at ECS, a nonpartisan think tank that tracks education policy, said that states where schools are required to allow students cross district boundaries to attend school have fewer instances of parents being arrested for stealing education.

Seventeen states, including some Connecticut districts in limited situations, have open enrollment to enhance school choice and offer students from low-achieving districts an exit.

“This policy never caught fire like opening [new] charter schools did,” said Christie.

A committee on a deadline

The Judiciary Committee has until 5 p.m. Friday to vote the bill out of committee — a deadline that gives opponents the opportunity to talk at length about the proposal in order to run out the clock.

Rebimbas, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that there are no plans yet to filibuster the bill.

However, she said, “I think every member has the responsibility to ask questions.”

Rep. Bruce Morris, the sponsor of the bill and vice chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said he believes the bill will make it out of committee. Morris worked for Norwalk Public Schools at the time that Tanya McDowell, who he said lived at a Bridgeport homeless shelter in

Bridgeport, was being prosecuted for sending her child to a school in Norwalk.

“How do you criminalize something that is free?” he asked, noting he thinks the other legislators on the panel agree.