Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Decriminalize School Choice

James Skillen


January 19, 1998

Some families trapped in failing urban school districts are so desperate to see their kids learn that they actually become outlaws to get them into better schools, and even force their kids to lie about it. What's the response of the custodians of the government system? Sadly, they seem more interested in clamping down on the parents than on serving the kids.

This tragedy is currently being played out in the Baltimore area. The city schools are so bad that the state has assumed partial control, and the Democratic mayor has actually flirted with school choice. Many parents have shifted to private or Christian schools; some large black churches are operating their own academies lest the children be lost to the streets. Some parents educate their children at home. Others have exercised school choice the one way the system accepts: they've moved to school districts where education happens.

But other parents have had to resort to an illicit form of school choice. Stuck in the city, they have illegally contrived to get their kids into functioning public schools in districts outside the city. These "border-hopping" families go to great lengths on behalf of their children, sending them to live during the week with relatives near a decent school, requiring their children to walk long distances to the better school, having them hop onto the wrong school bus, or putting them onto public transit buses to get them where the school system doesn't want them to go. To maintain the deception, the parents then require their children to give a false address and phone number to the school.

Such desperate schemes are not unusual when parents lack legitimate ways to ensure the education of their offspring. In the rigid French public school system, according to Center for Public Justice advisor Charles Glenn, similar subversive stratagems have been employed particularly by sophisticated and well-connected parents who can find no other way to secure for their children the appropriate education promised to all by the system.

Of course, these private-choice tactics are troublesome. School districts can't adequately plan if students show up where they don't belong. Because financing is tied to school districts, illegally transferred students impose costs on their new school without adding any funds. In some districts outside of Baltimore City, not only do taxpayers foot a large extra bill to educate city students, but their own children get crammed into portable classrooms because of the unplanned arrivals. Perhaps worst of all, parents can hardly cooperate with a school in the educational process if they don't dare admit their children even attend there.

So illegal school choice ought to be stopped. But not the way public-school officials are going about it. Their solution is to hire "residency officials,"—border-control cops—to uncover and stop the illegal transfers across school-district lines. One county outside Baltimore already has four school cops to chase the 4,000 students suspected of illegally escaping the city in search of good schools.

Public-school officials, and government leaders themselves, would do much better if they would take border-hopping as a signal that drastic changes are needed in a system that so obviously cannot serve the whole public. Their energy should be devoted to devising a system in which no parents who desire the best for their children have to subvert its rules.

Comprehensive school choice is the only solution. Make it legal for parents to decide which school—government or nongovernmental, secular or religious—can best educate their children, and then let the funds follow the students. Stop the cops! Make school choice legal!

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”