Would you lie and cheat to get your child into a better school?

Would you lie to enroll your child in a better school system?

AJC education reporter Rose French recently wrote about a crackdown by metro Atlanta districts on students who fraudulently attend schools outside their legal enrollment zones.

I am aware of several past cases in Decatur, which is among the districts resorting to hiring someone to monitor enrollment fraud. I have heard of people “renting” rooms from a Decatur homeowner to establish residency. I know people who used their own parents’ or grandparents’ addresses, sometimes even transferring legal guardianship. There was a highly publicized case a few years back of a business owner using his Decatur business address to enroll his kids.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Few systems criminally prosecute, preferring to send the kids back to their home schools. It became national news in 2011 when an Ohio district chose to do so and mother 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.)

Last year, the AJC reported a fourth of the Grady High School team used false addresses or forged documents to play on the team and attend the school with the complicity of some APS employees. An APS investigation concluded 14 students who played on the team didn't live in the Midtown Atlanta school's enrollment area and had to withdraw from Grady. The Georgia High School Athletic Association put Grady on probation for a season, made it forfeit its victories and barred it from the 2014 state playoffs.

According to French:

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.

In Fulton, school board members have made proof-of-residency requirements more stringent. Fulton reviews more than 150 cases each year, officials say. Fulton and Atlanta have hired residency police officers who investigate enrollment fraud, and APS is considering more ways to eliminate it, school officials say.

Education observers say the practice underscores the desperation felt by many parents, who want their children to attend higher-performing schools but may not be able to buy a house or live in more affluent neighborhoods with higher property taxes that typically have better schools.

"What you have are parents who happen to live adjoining to one of these quality school systems, and they want the best for their children, and they can't afford it, " said Dan Domenech, executive director for the national School Superintendents Association. "So what they do is try to figure out a way to get their child into that school system. Maybe they have an aunt or an uncle or a relative and they use that address as a way to get that child in the school system. But the child doesn't actually live there.

"In a way, you can't blame parents for wanting the best for their kids, " he added. "But at the same time, you have to understand it is theft of service. They are trying to get something for nothing in a way."