Washington DC’s attorney general recently sued a married couple, alleging they had illegally enrolled their three children in well-regarded local public schools despite living outside the District, and demanding more than $224,000 in back tuition. Reached by the Washington Post at home, Alan Hill, the father named in the lawsuit, sounded bewildered: “We are in the middle of this process and still trying to understand it.”
“The issue of nonresidents enrolling in D.C. public schools is often heated, particularly as students compete for a limited number of seats in highly sought-after schools,” the Post reports. “Parents often talk of sitting on wait lists for schools while they see drivers with license plates from neighboring states lining up to drop off their children.”
Stealing from Taxpayers?
Clear across the country in Berkeley, California, the local school district also combats illegal enrollees at the behest of annoyed residents. Framed by poorer-performing school districts—most notably Oakland, a high-violence locale—Berkeley Unified School District has proven to be irresistible to parents desperately seeking a better life for their kids despite their inability to pay district housing prices.
Residents even started the Berkeley Accountable Schools Project, a community group that monitors and complains about enrollment fraud. They claim as many as 40 percent of kids attending Berkeley public high schools are illegally enrolled. They have posted anecdotes like these:
the mother of a BHS football player said she ‘spent an hour driving around Oakland’ when she offered her son’s teammates a ride home after practice.
A football player’s father carpooled team members out by Oakland Coliseum. In that particular year, he claimed that none of the starting players lived in Berkeley.
A Berkeley police officer, speaking off the record, said that about 80% of Berkeley High students who were picked up in connection with violent crimes in Berkeley turned out to live out-of-district. In some cases, these students provided the address of a Berkeley relation whose address they used on school documents, but with whom they did not reside.
In conversations with a school board candidate, a parent learned that 30%-50% fraudulent enrollment is the working range estimated by the people ‘with the best information.’
Last year, Lower Moreland public schools, in a Philadelphia community, took Hamlet and Olesia Garcia to court for enrolling their eight-year-old daughter there instead of in lower-performing northwest Philadelphia schools. The family settled out of court, at a cost of some $81,000 in back tuition and legal fees. Hamlet is an immigrant from Cuba.
“This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in America,” Hamlet thought as he walked up the courthouse steps, he told the Hechinger Report. On the contrary, the district attorney who prosecuted the Garcias told reporters: they “essentially stole from every hard-working taxpayer who resides within the Lower Moreland School District.”
Sanctuary Schools? NIMBY
Here’s the irony: Berkeley, Philadelphia, and Washington DC are “sanctuary cities,” where local law enforcement or other government bodies have openly declared they won’t enforce illegal immigration laws—at least, not against foreign citizens. The University of California-Berkeley is a national leader in openly enrolling and providing tax-sponsored tuition writeoffs and other supports to illegal immigrants. So while these city governments welcome illegal foreign immigrants to, among other things, enroll their kids in local schools (the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that public schools must educate illegal immigrants), those same local schools are prosecuting U.S. citizens for doing the same thing.
The Pew Research Center estimates 4,065 undocumented children live in DC. That’s one hundred times more than the approximately 40 young U.S. citizens internal audits identified as illegally enrolled last year. A report estimated that children of illegal immigrants cost Pennsylvanians some $660 million to educate in 2008, before Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals spiked underage undocumented immigrant numbers nationwide. This map from Pew shows state-by-state estimates for K-12 students with undocumented parents—the kids have higher rates of citizenship because many were born in the United States.
Berkeley parents and school administrators showed some self-awareness when complaining about enrollment fraud to a local publication last year—at least, enough that “very few people were willing to talk to Berkeleyside [the publication] on the record about illegal enrollment.” Some welcomed kids regardless of their origin.
“If you have an opportunity to educate more students in a more stable environment, at a better school, why would we limit that?” an unnamed teacher told Berkeleyside. “We don’t see out of district kids as a drawback. In fact, I want to teach as many kids as possible.”
But enough are annoyed to have Berkeley schools cracking down: “The problem for parents isn’t just about tax money. Some complain that the out-of-district students, who are presumed to come from low-income families, are creating more discipline problems. Others complain about the ‘rich Oakland Hills’ families that send their kids to Berkeley for a free ride.”
Illegal Enrollment Increasing
Berkeley is just one of many school districts that hires enrollment fraud investigators to follow up on tips and complaints. School district fraud investigations have increased, said James Mesis, one such investigator who began offering his services in 2000 and now works with more than 200 school districts across the country. Washington DC employs its own enrollment investigator, said DC schools spokesman Fred Lewis. Like other investigators, he will show up at kids’ listed home addresses and go inside, visiting their bedrooms to see if it looks like the child actually lives and sleeps there.
“Half the time the kids are the first ones who blurt out where they live,” Mesis said. Parents will typically deny they’re enrolling their children illegally until investigators show them videos and pictures of their kids going home to out-of-district residences, he said.
An increase in complaints from District residents led the D.C. City Council to focus on illegal enrollment in recent years, Lewis said. When parents who live in and pay taxes for local schools can’t get their kids into coveted athletics or preschool programs, and see people with out-of-state licenses queuing up at parent pickup, they get crabby. And they have a right to. It’s not just about the taxes, but also crowding, because every out-of-district child takes a spot that could have gone to a child who was legally entitled to it, Lewis said.
How many illegal immigrants are taking some of those spots? Maybe they mostly don’t live near the wealthy DC residents zoned into better schools, so that’s why parents only complain about illegal citizens instead of illegal noncitizens. Given the odds, however, doing that seems a significant cognitive dissonance.
For every parent tearfully holding forth on camera because she just wanted her kid to have a shot at a better education, there are seniors on fixed incomes who have to pay higher taxes to pay for out-of-district kids’ education, Mesis said. He gave this example: “You’re the parent of a child getting married, at $150 a plate for dinner. And a pack of people you don’t know comes in and sits down. Until you’re paying for it, you don’t realize the financial pain.”
It’s a little weird listening to people make arguments such as this when similar complaints about international illegal immigration get immediately tarred “racism” and ignored.
Another Way to Open the Border
In the education arena, at least, research has shown that there’s a third option between jacking up local residents’ property taxes to cover fraudsters and hunting down little children just hoping to escape from schools where they don’t learn to read and get knifed on the playground. It’s called school choice.
Several studies by Randall Reback, an economics professor at Barnard College and fellow at Columbia University, have found that opportunities such as open enrollment across district lines and charter schools increase home prices in poorer areas. This is because home prices are tied to school-district quality, even for people who don’t have children. This is a less-obvious way wealthy people ensure that their kids attend decent schools without having to appear so snobbish and exclusive as to enroll the kids in private school.
In other words, it’s more accurate to think of local public schools not as “free” schools that are or can be substantially the same, but as “local clubs” that are as expensive and exclusive as the people paying for them, Reback said. Take away some of the exclusivity, he said, and you equalize the price.
“We find that choice increases the population density and the income of the types of people moving into the less popular, poorer districts, because they know they now have the option of transferring to the next district over,” Reback said.
While school choice lifts property values in poorer areas because it makes people buy just a house, not a house plus or minus K-12 tuition, it also slightly reduces property values in the coveted zones with better public schools, because people can get into those schools now without having to pay for a big mortgage. One might consider this wealth redistribution, or one might consider it righting a rigged market.
Go For the Win-Win
States that legalize open enrollment, where children can attend a school outside their neighborhood’s borders, typically incentivize schools to want new students by attaching their education funds to them so they bring money in rather than requiring them to divide existing local funds among more students.
Applying these ideas to immigration is a little trickier, because the two are not exactly comparable, but still there are some parallels. Even open-borders boosters agree, for example, that studies suggest more immigration at least temporarily reduces existing citizens’ incomes and economic opportunities. The question, in both cases, is whether more open borders are worth it in the long run.
And, as with open enrollment, if the United States reduces social welfare programs so new arrivals are less likely to further subdivide existing resources or to take when they haven’t contributed, current citizens will naturally be more welcoming. When something is a zero-sum game, things get ugly. Optimal is a system where everyone wins. And that’s possible.
Another central question is whether America ought to prioritize the citizens we already have. That would include schoolchildren trapped in terrible public schools, whose flight to better schools is often stymied or pooh-poohed by the very same people who welcome non-citizens with open arms.