Thirty days in jail? Is that a risk worth taking to get your kids into the best public school around? In Charleston, S.C., that may be the reality some parents need to grapple with now that the public school system has decided to crack down on parents who are faking their home addresses for the cause of a good education.
It was recently discovered that several families with hopes of sending their kids to kindergarten at a place called Buist Academy were filling out the application forms under false pretenses. Buist, a magnet elementary school with all the benefits that status includes -- more teachers, better funding and a superior rate of high school attendance after graduation -- is located in a section of Charleston known as "downtown." A kindergarten spot is so sought after that each year up to 240 families apply for the 40 spaces available.
Acceptance requires hitting a few different marks, among them: passing an entrance exam and having an address in "downtown." That, apparently, is where the system has been gamed. Families living outside downtown -- miles away in some cases -- have been, according to Buist Academy principal Sallie Ballard, falsifying their applications, listing as their residences downtown addresses where they don't live, and where, sometimes, nobody at all lives.
"I found one child last year who was 'living' in a coffee shop," says Ballard. "I found another one 'living' in her father's office." Of course, the point is that neither of these children lived at those addresses, and their parents were asked to withdraw their children's applications.
The discovery turned into something of a scandal locally, prompting the board of education in Charleston to spell out more explicit rules for establishing residency for new year's applying class. The new application form will include a warning that providing false information constitutes perjury under South Carolina law, which carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail.
Realistically, it is not likely that families will be prosecuted, even if they do lie, says local attorney Greg Myers, who serves on the school board. But he believes the threat sends a message. "People will do a lot for their children," says Myers, but "we want them to know that there's a limit to what they should do."
It's a message that could apply well beyond Charleston, for the trend of parents lying to get their kids into better schools is evident in communities all over the nation. Tonight's "Nightline," for example, includes surveillance videotape recorded on orders from the board of education in Philadelphia trying to establish whether a family whose two teenage daughters attended public schools actually lived in the city. The board had received an anonymous tip that the family actually lived in a suburb called Bensalem.
"The letter included photographs, detailed information on the family, where they were living, what the schools their children attended," explains the board of education's Inspector General Jack Downs. Whoever sent it, he says, was "someone that knows the family very well."