Posted just six hours after the close of Mother’s Day, this eerily titled article, “Some school districts tail parents to check where family actually lives,” discussed the lengths to which some parents go to enroll their child in a “desirable school district”—and the lengths to which some districts go to keep such “outsiders” at bay.  Nothing says we cherish or appreciate moms like this description of a local residency investigation that resulted in a child being forcibly withdrawn from a local school. As the Columbus Dispatch reported:

“In April, lots of Bexley residents chimed in over social media when an outraged mother posted that the Bexley school district hired a private investigator to tail her for months to see if she and her young son actually live at her mother’s house. She said she works multiple jobs and isn’t at home much. In the Facebook post that has since been removed, she said her son had been kicked out of school with only five weeks left in the year...”

In response, the district’s attorney, Gregory Scott defended the district’s actions saying:

“There’s nothing nefarious about that [legally following someone in public].”

“Districts that choose to close their enrollment are not depriving any children of an education. Every square mile of Ohio is served by a school district.”

Scott spoke with the perfunctory tone and callous precision one might expect from someone tasked with investigating families and booting small children to the curb. Of course, he’s right that “Every square mile of Ohio” is within some school district boundary and that all children are zoned for particular public schools. Yet his statement is akin to a hospital director saying that the patients she ousted mid-treatment can receive triage care at the local Emergency Room or at another hospital.

It’s true that no child in Ohio is deprived of “an education,” but too many are deprived of an excellent one—the kind the Bexley City Schools are said to provide. Are we supposed to celebrate the mere availability of public schooling, whatever its quality? Maybe if it were 1825, when the Ohio General Assembly first passed the law establishing common schools. But almost two centuries later, when historically underserved children continue to get short shrift in K-12 public education, not so much.

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Bexley Superintendent Mike Johnson’s remarks were also problematic when he tried to explain to the Dispatch how families “stretch their finances to move into the city and enroll.” Look, I don’t doubt that many families make sacrifices to be able to afford houses in Bexley, be it a $580,000, 5-bedroom home “with lots of space for a mudroom” or more modest options in the mid-$200k range.[1]

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Those families are doing the right thing when they make sacrifices to choose better options for their children by purchasing homes in places with good schools. That’s their prerogative. (Some would say that’s their duty.) And I don’t minimize the capacity and resource constraints facing some of the school districts that have closed their doors to open enrollment. (However, the fact that most districts refusing open enrollment are located just outside the bounds of Ohio’s largest and poorest cities tells me there’s likely more to it than crowded classrooms. Stay tuned for more on this soon, as Fordham will be releasing a report on open enrollment in Ohio on June 6.)

But we need to stop pretending that it’s within the power of most Ohio families to afford homes or apartments in the state’s top rated school districts. When we talk about school choice, we need to be more honest—whether in public debates, in the media, even in conversation with friends, families, and neighbors. Here are a few suggestions.

First, recognize that nearly every family with school-age children and the means to move to a good school district has already exercised “school choice.” Choice is not limited to vouchers, public charter schools, online schooling—options viewed by some as reprehensible attempts to destroy public education. Opting into one’s zoned neighborhood school when it has excellent academic programming, beautiful, safe spaces to learn, and top-notch teachers doesn’t make you a truer public school parent than the mom who drives her child 45 minutes to open enroll in a neighboring district, or the dad who sends his children to a public charter school. Similarly, the parent or soon-to-be parent who buys a home in the best district in the state after carefully researching its schools has a lot in common with the one who searches out a scholarship for her child to attend a private school. We need to stop other-izing and vilifying those who exercise more overt forms of choice, and stop pretending that traditional public school parents are more civic minded—or better citizens—simply because they’ve opted into systems that are, in many instances, already great choices for their children.

Second, challenge the bootstrap mentality and borderline victim-blaming that emerges in these discussions. While perhaps unintended, Superintendent Johnson’s remarks regarding Bexley parents making financial sacrifices to move into his district and attend its great schools can perpetuate harmful misinformation about the roots of inequality. While it’s certainly true that many families work hard and make sacrifices to move into certain neighborhoods and access the schools that serve them, there are  many more families for whom such excellent neighborhood options are beyond reach. Lurking beneath this stance is also callous disregard of historical and present realities in America regarding segregation, housing discrimination, and generational poverty.

Ask yourself the following questions:

If you’re a homeowner, did you inherit wealth from your family in order to be able to buy a home? Did your parents or in-laws contribute toward your down payment?

Did your family help you pay for college? Did they buy or help you buy your first car, computer, or other large expenses?

Have you ever experienced racial discrimination when attempting to rent or purchase an apartment or home?

These questions might help folks consider how or why it may not be as easy for a working-class or middle-class person—especially those saddled with student loans, car payments, or credit card debt—from opting into their neighborhood of choice. We should also acknowledge the reality that people of color face barriers during the home buying process that white families don’t.

Third, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Pretend that tomorrow you’ll face a lottery that will rezone your and everyone else’s children. When your name is pulled out of the hat, your kids stand just as much chance of being forced to attend your area’s lowest-rated schools as they do the best schools—in some communities maybe even a higher chance.

Then imagine that your child was randomly rezoned to the lowest-performing school in your community, and that politicians, community leaders, or parents whose children lucked into the good schools told you that you need to wait some indeterminate period for society as a whole to fix systemic issues that made your school crummy in the first place. It doesn’t take much imagination to continue this thought exercise, wondering what it’d feel like when those same folks attacked your democratic values for insisting that the current system available to your child just isn’t good enough. Under such circumstances, perhaps even slipping your child around the rules and barriers of a system that is arbitrarily rigged against you would begin to seem like a reasonable alternative.

The Dispatch article reminds us of the many thousands of families for whom that is an actual, modern-day reality. It’s true—and fortunate—that Ohio has fairly robust programs of choice available to families, including several private-school scholarships, public charter schools, and open enrollment offered in some form by over 80 percent of districts. But the wealthy districts here in central Ohio that keep kids out and that spend money to investigate residency infractions have some soul-searching to do. So does anyone whose NIMBYism prevents them from even rudimentary empathy regarding the schooling realities facing other families. Anyone fortunate enough to have secured an excellent option for their own child owes it to less privileged families to engage honestly in school choice debates, and at minimum, to move out of the way of other families searching and fighting desperately for what they’ve already procured for their own kids.

[1] At least one of Bexley’s neighborhoods is ranked in the top 100 highest-income neighborhoods in the U.S. While nearly all Columbus City students are economically disadvantaged, just one in ten Bexley students are.  

Policy Priority:
Jamie is the former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She has authored hundreds of articles for the Ohio Education Gadfly, and has published op-eds in the Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Beacon Journal, Dayton Daily News, and Cincinnati Enquirer. She also works with a network of high-quality charter schools who are preparing low-income Ohio students for success in high…
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