Oklahoma, like most states, has a compulsory education law. If you don’t homeschool or send your child to a private school, you are required to enroll your child in a public school. Failure to do so means you can face fines and up to 15 days imprisonment on a third offense.
But if parents enroll their child in the “wrong” public school, they can face up to one year in jail.
Put simply, the potential consequences for neglecting a child’s education are far less severe than the consequences for trying to get your child in a safer public school with a better academic atmosphere.
Fortunately, one lawmaker wants to put an end to that mixed message.
Currently, if a parent tries to enroll his or her child in a public-school district by falsely claiming to reside in that district, the parent can face up to one year in jail and a $500 fine.
Senate Bill 1566, by state Sen. Ally Seifried (R-Claremore), would get rid of that penalty.
That’s the right move. The state should not penalize parents for trying to keep their children safe and educated—particularly families facing obstacles who are often ensnared by this type of law.
In 2011 in Ohio, Kelley Williams-Bolar was found guilty of two third-degree felonies and faced five years in prison for each count because she used her father’s home address to enroll her daughter in a better school.
Williams-Bolar was a black single mother who also worked as a teaching assistant for kids with special needs.
Similarly, in 2011, a homeless mother who used a friend’s address to register her child in the Norwalk, Connecticut district was charged with first-degree larceny and faced up to 20 years in prison.
In 2019, a staff member at Union Public Schools in Tulsa demanded to inspect a 12-year-old girl’s bedroom to establish residency.
Williams-Bolar’s sentence was suspended, and she instead served 10 days in jail. But losing 10 days of income is still a dramatic financial penalty for a single mom living in an area with many obstacles.
Oklahoma policymakers authorized open transfer between public school districts to create more opportunity. Unfortunately, many suburban districts have thrown up barriers to admission for the often-low-income parents trying to flee bad urban districts like Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where a majority of schools are D and F schools. That means some parents may resort to desperate measures to save their children.
Those families pay taxes—including income, sales, and gasoline taxes—that directly and indirectly fund schools. We should not act as though their lack of an expensive home in a better neighborhood consigns them to second-class citizenship.
And schools that fail to educate children—as state testing unfortunately shows happens far too often in Oklahoma—should not be rewarded by giving them the ability to effectively hold poor families captive with the threat of prosecution.