Where do you live… and with whom?

10 Aug

In 2011, Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted of “tampering with [school] records” (i.e. lying about residency) in order to get her kids enrolled in a better school district (http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/26/mom-jailed-for-enrolling-kids-in-wrong-school-district/). Williams-Bolar’s case signaled that proof of residency policies, in a time of grossly unequally funded and performing public schools, are serious business.

But just as parents want to avoid dealing with failing schools, so, it would appear, do school districts.

According to the SF Chronicle, “The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into whether the [San Mateo Union High School] district is enforcing proof-of-residency policies selectively against Chinese Americans who live in multifamily homes, or with relatives other than their parents” (http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/San-Mateo-student-transfers-probed-3748153.php).

On paper at first glance, it seems legit: the school district is assigning and even transferring students from top-ranked Mills High to Capuchino High, the district’s lowest-scoring school per the Academic Performance Index because “[the students] couldn’t prove they lived in the neighborhood–their parents’ names weren’t on the home deed or rental agreement, or the head of household wasn’t legally registered as the student’s guardian.”

Seems fair. And at least no one’s parents are being sent to jail.

So why the civil rights investigation? The several Chinese students and their families who have been reassigned (including students who have already attended Mills for a few years) suspect that the transfers are a means of boosting test scores at struggling Capuchino. I guess if you can’t fix the school, let the (Chinese) kids handle it.

But even if the district isn’t profiling students to target with proof of residency enforcement, the policy is still biased. As Millbrae councilman Wayne Lee explains, “Proof-of-residency policies will affect Chinese immigrants disproportionately, because “you have a lot of houses where multiple families live.” In other words, Chinese immigrants–like immigrants from many other cultures–have a different definition of “family” than the standard US denotation of one mom, one dad and their children.

Thus, a Chinese “family residence” with various aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents may appear to be in violation right from the start, simply because they have a different way of doing family. Compound this different cultural view and practice with the reality of little to no economic means–buying or even renting a home in the Bay Area is not a viable option for every nuclear family–and what had seemed to be a fair and equal policy requiring proof of residency from everyone, is in practice, a culturally and economically biased rule, whose enforcement and outcomes are discriminatory.

The solution? Not so easy as keeping the policy or tossing it, but addressing why there needs to be proof of residency: doing something about educational inequity in a nation where a great education ought to be every kid’s right.

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