Should Where You Live Determine Where Your Kid Goes to School?

Is it fair that a student is barred from attending a superior public school because of where he or she lives? This debate isn't new. While its current incarnation is geography, the heart of the issue revolves around the intersection between class and race.

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The Current Controversy

In April, Tanya McDowell was arrested and charged with first degree grand larceny for the amount of $15,686. Why? Because she enrolled her 6-year-old son in Norwalk, Connecticut's Brookside Elementary School from September of 2010 through January of 2011. According to Norwalk Public Schools, McDowell wasn't a legal resident and therefore she was stealing educational services. McDowell claimed she was homeless when she registered her son and spending part of her time at a friend's home in Norwalk, which would have made her eligible for the school.

This case follows that of Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio. Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail earlier this year for lying on school registration forms in order to get her two daughters into a better Akron school district than where they lived. Both mothers received national attention and stirred a growing debate about the fairness of access to the public school system.

A Long Legacy of Discrimination

The 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was, in theory, a watershed moment in education. It overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that made segregation legal. The Brown case established that the school system was separate but unequal. It was determined that, in practice, African American students had access to disproportionately inferior schools than their white peers. The Supreme Court decided that this was a form of discrimination barred by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Yet the case has failed to resolve the issue of de facto segregation. Today, parents like McDowell and Williams-Bolar fret over sending their children to their local school when another public school with far better resources and educational opportunities may be only a few miles away. In order to get their children enrolled in nearby schools, they must break the law. Yet they do so in order to provide their children with the best local public education they can find.

Separate But Unequal

The Brown v. Board of Education case was about overt racial discrimination. Yet while schools cannot prevent students from attending based on race, they can based on geography. This system is superficially fair. Since public schools typically receive substantial funding from local taxpayers, it's logical that those who pay taxes in the area should benefit from how those dollars are spent and those in areas with fewer tax dollars coming in would have inferior schools.

However, this begs the question of whether class should dictate access to education. If district lines are drawn based on property values, more tax money flows into the schools of wealthy neighborhoods while the schools in poorer neighborhoods flounder. The issue is further complicated by the relationship between race and class. Both McDowell and Williams-Bolar are African American. While the Supreme Court seemingly resolved the issue of equal access to education more than half a century ago, it's clear that discrimination still exists.

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