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."
Downs assigned former Philadelphia cop Bill Callahan to stake out the house in Bensalem that was, according to the anonymous letter writer, where the two girls really live. Several days ago, Callahan nailed it, capturing on videotape the two girls and their mother leaving the Bensalem house for their schools in Philadelphia. Callahan then called the home and over the phone, confronted the mother with the evidence. "She didn't say it," he recalls of that conversation, "but I knew in her mind, she said 'okay you got me.'"
Yesterday the Bensalem presented the board of education with a check for nearly $30,000 to avoid the immediate expulsion of the daughters from the Philadelphia schools. Going forward, the girls will be allowed to stay enrolled, but only if the school system continues to receive compensation for their education, an arrangement that exists for other out-of-boundary students attending Philadelphia schools.
Asked whether he can sympathize with parents who cheat to improve their children's chances in life, Downs is adamant. "What they're doing is showing their children how to cheat and lie," he argues. "They're cheating the taxpayers of the city of Philadelphia by not paying the taxes that Philadelphia residents have to pay for their children to attend public schools and they're lying about where they live."
Similar stories have been reported in Seattle, and when "World News Tonight" first reported on the Charleston story last week, viewers wrote in from other states complaining that parents were playing the fake address game in their communities as well.