Update: Jan. 30, 2014: On Jan. 29, Hamlet Garcia pleaded guilty to having knowingly provided false information when he and his wife, Olesia, enrolled their daughter in a school outside their district. The Garcias, who are forced to pay back nearly $11,000 worth of education, will not face jail time. This evening, America Tonight revisits the Garcias' story to see how far a family will go to give their children a better education. Tune in at 9 p.m. ET.
Explore the rest of our education series "Getting Schooled."
The statistics of Millburn High School would make the heart of any parent flutter: There is one teacher per 13 kids, 98 percent of students graduate, and 70 percent of juniors and seniors pass at least one Advanced Placement test. Millburn High consistently ranks as one of the top-performing schools in the country.
This is a public school, but the price of admission is steep. The average house in the tony township of Millburn, N.J., sells for $1.3 million, and the real estate taxes run about $20,000 a year. There’s no designated affordable housing in Millburn, and only 12 of Millburn High School’s 1,492 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
If you live a few miles from Millburn, say, in Newark, N.J., you might go to Barringer High School, where just 52 percent of students graduate in four years and fewer than half the students are proficient in reading and math. Violence is routine. In October 2012, a student was stabbed to death in an after-school fight. Two years earlier, a student was sexually assaulted in an empty classroom.
“The way it works in New Jersey is you go to school within your ZIP code. It’s a ZIP code education system,” explained Laura Waters, president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. “And the reason those kids go to Barringer is because that’s where their parents can afford to live.”
The state has charter schools and an interdistrict transfer program for fewer than 3 percent of students. But by and large in New Jersey, address is destiny. So some parents, desperate to improve their children’s opportunities, lie about their address, sneak past the border and steal a better education for their kids.
Adam Fried, superintendent of the affluent Harrington Park School District in Bergen County, N.J., says he feels conflicted about hunting down border hoppers and kicking them out. But he says his ultimate responsibility is to the taxpayers in the community who fund his budget.
The issue isn’t funding, exactly. New Jersey is one of 17 states that spend more money per student in high-poverty districts than in low-poverty ones, according to a 2012 report from the Education Law Center. Millburn Township spends $17,392 a year on each student, reports to the New Jersey Department of Education. Newark spends $21,700. The difference is where that money comes from.
The cost of Millburn students is almost entirely — 86 percent — paid by the community’s property taxes. In Newark, just 11 percent of funding comes from local taxes, with the rest paid for by the government. That means high-performing districts like Millburn want to protect their borders. If there were just 10 out-of-district children per grade at Millburn High School, the extra cost to the Millburn taxpayers would be almost $600,000 a year.
“They are personally funding the schools,” Waters said. “It all comes on the backs of those taxpayers. So if you say, ‘Well, there’s a kid from Newark trying to sneak in,’ we’re not going to pay for that kid. He doesn’t live here.”
President of the Lawrence Township School Board
It’s a conflict that leaves educators grappling with the reality that serving their own community can mean denying a better education to those most in need.
“That’s something I struggled with,” said Adam Fried, superintendent of Harrington Park School District in Bergen County, where 85 percent of the school’s budget comes from property taxes. “As a teacher we know what we need to do, right? But as a superintendent, because of our tax structure in the state of New Jersey, we have stakeholders that we are responsible for.”
For Fried, that has sometimes meant hiring someone to find out which students were boundary-hopping. “It breaks your heart to do that,” he confessed.
‘Suburban border patrol’
More and more, high-performing school districts are cracking down on boundary hoppers and hiring a kind of suburban border patrol — private detectives equipped with high-tech tools — to sniff out education thieves.
Jimmie Mesis, a New Jersey–based private investigator for 33 years, has made big business out of the work. Five years ago, he started his specialized investigation company, Verify Residence, and school districts are some of his biggest clients.
It all started when he developed a data-mining program that could take a school’s entire student roster and, usually within 72 hours, check whether the address a parent had given matched up with other records.
When schools saw the results, Mesis said, they realized they had a big problem.
“We’ll run the student names through the database, and it might often come back as totally out of district, out of town, out of state,” he explained. “In New Jersey, we’ve had a lot of cases where the students actually lived in Pennsylvania or New York City and they were coming to school in New Jersey.”
Private investigator for schools
There is no real data on how many kids are illegally enrolled in schools outside their districts in New Jersey. But Mesis said there’s one district where there are often more than 100 out-of-district students a year. In 2010 the superintendent of Union Township estimated that of his 7,000 students, about 400 were there illegally. That year, the district began prosecuting boundary hoppers.
But in order to prosecute, districts need hard evidence. That’s where Mesis’ high-tech surveillance comes in.
From a van tricked out with a secret periscope and wall-to-wall monitors, Mesis and his partner Jim Nanos have tracked hundreds of students.
“Basically, the surveillance involves us sitting outside the out-of-district residence and videotaping the child coming out of that house to prove that the child slept in a residence that was out of the district,” he said. “We're probably talking about 30 seconds of video. That’s all it is.”
Although the company will sometimes use an SUV or a regular car, the surveillance van has a computer to type reports, a monitor, a microwave, an air conditioning unit, a printer and fax machine and the ability to stream live video to a remote location — costly equipment.
So, how big is business?
“It’s taken off,” Mesis boasted, crediting technological advances in surveillance. “It’s a market that didn't exist more than three, four years ago to the extent that it is now.”
And that market can be lucrative. Mesis said schools can pay anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the size of the school and the services requested. In a given year, Verify Residence may have more than 60 school clients, he added.
But to some who have been the subject of his surveillance, Mesis’ work is downright creepy.
“We’ve had incidences where parents, when they’re caught, they'll say, ‘I can't believe that you were watching me,’” he said. He added that his team abides by privacy laws, which vary by state.
Though policing these boundaries is fiscally smart and legally sound, there are hazier ethics at play. The criminals, after all, are parents who want the best for their children, parents who are saddened or afraid to send their kids to the schools in their own ZIP code. These offenders are also, according to crackdown critics, often minorities.
Mesis denies that that has been his experience. “If I was to do a survey of all the students that we’ve ever caught, I would have to say that most of them were white and that they weren't black or any other race,” he said. “Sometimes the students that are doing this are from well-to-do families,” pointing out that some parents lie about their address so their children can play on a particular sports team or maintain their friends after a move.
“Basically, as an investigator, I try not to get involved in the personal aspect of why people are doing what they’re doing,” Mesis said. “Bottom line is, they’re breaking the law.”
Kelley Williams-Bolar was arrested for stealing education for her two daughters after lying about her address to enroll them in a better school district.
In New Jersey the consequences of boundary-hopping include expulsion or back payment of the school district’s tuition. In at least seven states and Washington, D.C., boundary hoppers can be criminally charged for theft of educational services.
Williams-Bolar was complaining to her dad about her neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, when he suggested that she send her daughter to the school in ZIP code instead.
“He said, ‘Just send them to my school,’” she told America Tonight. “You know you’re here every day. You’re here all the time anyway.”
Williams-Bolar, 43, who has been a teacher’s aide for many years, was aware of many boundary-hopping kids. While she knew she was being deceptive when she registered with her dad’s address, she thought of it as more of a white lie.
“It wasn’t like it was Burger King’s address. This was my dad’s address. And we both lived off the same road,” she said. “It was just that he lived in the township and I lived in the city. But we literally lived five minutes away from each other.”
So instead of going to Akron schools, where the student body is largely low-income and black, Williams-Bolar’s two daughters went to a school in their grandfather’s district of Copley-Fairlawn, which is mostly white and funded primarily by property taxes.
“We had things that I never would even think an elementary school would have. We had a computer lab. We had the garden outside. We had our own greenhouse,” Jada, the younger daughter, told America Tonight. “And I was just so grateful to have been able to go there for just two years.”
As Williams-Bolar understands it, a private investigator hired by the school district monitored her comings and goings and assembled evidence that she was not a Copley resident. She withdrew her two daughters and enrolled them back in Akron.
“It was a huge difference. It was huge,” said Jada. “We didn’t learn that much. It was disruptive in classes. There were no resources. It was completely different, and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything at all.”
Eighteen months later, Williams-Bolar was indicted for grand theft and forgery. The judge said she wanted to send a message to others like her, and Williams-Bolar went to jail for nine days. During that time, her daughters lived with their grandfather in Copley.
The story generated national outrage. A petition to free her went viral, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich ultimately pardoned her. But for another family one state over, the trial is yet to come.
An upcoming trial
“I was just in disbelief that this was happening in America over education, a 5-year-old child,” said Olesia Garcia. “And I pleaded with the superintendent. I said, ‘Look, we’re good parents. We’re good citizens. I’m a business owner. I never did anything. I always walked the straight line.’”
Cuban immigrant Hamlet Garcia married Olesia, a Ukrainian immigrant, in 1998. In 2011 they had marital problems, they say, and Olesia moved out of their Philadelphia home with their daughter, Fiorella, and into her father’s house in Montgomery County, Pa. There she enrolled Fiorella in Pine Road Elementary, a largely white and affluent school.
In March 2012, the Garcias say, they reconciled, and Olesia Garcia and Fiorella moved back to Philadelphia, and Fiorella finished the year at Pine Road. In April they were contacted by the school district, which disputed their residency. And in August, they say, they were told they had a choice: Turn themselves in or a warrant would be put out for their arrest.
The criminal complaint alleges that the Garcias stole $10,000 from the county — the cost of one year’s tuition. That’s a felony, with a potential prison sentence of seven years. The trial is set for next week, and the Montgomery County assistant attorney general canceled a planned interview.
The Garcias have become outspoken critics of the criminalization of boundary hoppers and the inequality of U.S. school system overall. And they were part of the campaign that pushed Connecticut to end the felony arrests of boundary hoppers last summer.
“If you live in Philadelphia because you are a person who doesn’t have the money to live in Montgomery County,” said Hamlet Garcia, “that is not your fault that you can’t make the same money than those folks.”
More money, same problems
Money is certainly part of the problem. In the U.S., a wealthy child is more likely to attend a school with more resources than a poorer student, according to research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. That puts the U.S. in the company of only Israel and Turkey out of the 34 O.E.C.D countries. But throwing more money at the problem wouldn’t necessarily fix it.
“If you look at almost every state, you see the amount of money a district spends is basically uncorrelated with the quality of education,” said Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, who has been studying school funding for more than 30 years.
Hanushek believes that parents should at least have choice and that perhaps districts would be more welcoming of boundary hoppers if they were able to take their state and federal funding with them.
“It’s that we permit crummy schools to exist for some of our poor central-city residents — that’s the fundamental problem,” he said. “And try to lock everybody to prevent them from trying to do better.”