Bill lets students attend schools in any zone with borrowed address

Sometimes, legislation introduced in the Georgia General Assembly serves as political theater, designed to entertain, enrage or emphasize a point. I would put House Bill 788 in the last category.

The bill, which has no chance of passage, would allow parents to cite a friend's address to enroll their children in a school outside of their district or zone. For example, a student who lives in DeKalb could attend a school in Gwinnett if the parents have friends there willing to lend their legal address.

The bill imposes no geographic limits but the likely scenario would be parents attempting to move their kids into high-performing adjacent districts due to transportation challenges.  (Anyone else see a thriving industry in a "rent-a-friend networks" in high-performing school districts?)

Sponsored by Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Ellenwood, the bill says, “A student shall be allowed to attend and be enrolled in the school for which a parent or guardian certifies that an individual residing in the school's attendance zone has authorized such parent or guardian to use such individual's address for purposes of establishing residency. A parent or guardian or an individual residing in the school's attendance zone who has authorized such parent or guardian to use such individual's address shall not be criminally liable pursuant ...and shall not be liable for any attorney's fees or other fees for the use of such individual's address to enroll a child in a school."

It is illegal now in Georgia to falsify an address to enroll children in a school out of their attendance zone, which is why some districts require residency affidavits. Most systems don't criminally prosecute when they find families using an illegal address, preferring to send the students back to their home schools.

The subterfuge became national news in 2011 when a district in Ohio chose to prosecute. Parent Kelley Williams-Bolar earned brief jail time for using her father’s address and forging documents to enroll her daughters in a higher performing district. (Ohio Gov. John Kasich reduced her sentence of 10 days of jail time.)

A few years ago, AJC reporter Rose French reported:

Enrollment fraud, a growing practice that has districts putting more resources into policing it, involves students and parents lying about where they live. Some do it to attend higher-performing schools, while others want to play in successful high school athletic programs outside their attendance zones.

It costs Georgia school systems roughly $8,000 to $13,000 to educate each student. Local property taxes supply part of that cost, but districts don’t get that property-tax revenue for students who actually live elsewhere. Atlanta Public Schools pegs the cost to taxpayers for students who reside outside the city of Atlanta, for example, at $11,379.

The city of Decatur’s school board recently approved hiring a full-time staff member to monitor enrollment fraud, with officials investigating 120 to 160 students per year suspected of lying about their residency to attend the fast-growing, high-performing school system. About 30 are asked to leave each year. However, officials believe a lot more are likely to be attending illegally.

I believe the point being made by Rep. Stovall with this dramatic legislation is that some students are zoned to underperforming schools, and those kids deserve an escape hatch. She was among a handful of Democratic legislators who supported Gov. Nathan Deal's Opportunity School District, saying at the time about her own Clayton school district: "Our economic viability is dependent upon an effective school system, which is not what we have now. ... I remain in support of the passage of the amendment because our students can't wait."

The problem is Georgia taxpayers are proprietorial toward schools because they foot more of the bill as the state contribution shrinks and the local burden grows. High-performing school districts in Georgia share several traits: The parents have higher-than-average education attainment and earn middle-class or better wages. The larger communities understand the benefit of good schools and are willing to pay more in local property taxes. Those same communities would fight any effort that could overcrowd their schools and raise their taxes to pay for new students from outside the district.

Your thoughts?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.