Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
When people think of crossing the border to find a better life, they usually imagine people from foreign countries who are not legally entitled to be in the United States. But there’s another kind of border violation that is very common: parents enrolling their children in higher-performing schools outside their district because their local schools are failing.
Brandon Brown is one such child. “I’ll be 11 in October,” he tells me. In answer to the standard grownup-talking-to-kids question, Brandon reveals, “I’m gonna be in third grade.”
His mom noticed my raised eyebrows. “Yes, he’s going to be retained for the second time.” Three years in third grade. His mom works with him after school. She hired a tutor and Brandon attended summer school for the last three years. He’s still getting low test scores. I ask her about an IEP, an Individualized Education Program that is tailored to a student’s needs and provides extra help where needed. “The school told me he has ADHD and he should go to a doctor and get medication for that, and then he could have an IEP. His doctor said he does not have ADHD and likely has a learning disorder, but the school still has not tested him for that.”
Brandon‘s neighborhood elementary school ranks near the bottom in a low-performing district. It received an “F” grade in student performance last year, according to Oklahoma’s controversial school rating system. For the last two years, Brandon’s teachers were uncertified substitutes. “All year long, nothing but substitutes!” his mom said.
Brandon’s mom says she’s had enough and she will use her brother’s address to enroll him in a better school. “I’ve had it; the local school has failed to educate my child for years. No more!”
Brandon’s family is not alone. A highly unscientific poll conducted by this writer of neighbors, friends, and relatives turned up several families sending their children to schools outside of their home districts. “It’s tough in a lot of ways,” Jaquin’s mother told me. “I use my aunt’s address to send him to school in Norman. We commute over 50 miles round-trip every day, but it’s worth it.” Previously, Jaquin wasn’t reading at all as a fourth grader. His parents met with school personnel, enrolled him in various tutoring and enrichment programs, and worked with him at home. “I knew Jaquin had a problem but we couldn’t get the school to provide any assistance.” The school she transferred him to in Norman tested him for dyslexia and started intervention. Within a year, Jaquin gained two grade levels in reading and math; three years later, he has a B average.
Other families echoed the same sentiments. They know that what they’re doing is illegal but say that they don’t feel they have a choice. “Schools in our neighborhood are piss-poor,” one dad said. “I went to the same school as a kid but it has really gone downhill.”
“We thought about moving, but we can’t sell our house – nobody wants to move into a failing school district.”
Another family’s high-achieving son was not being challenged in his local school. Programs for gifted and talented children have been cut in many districts — particularly low-income districts, whose students are more likely to be Black or Hispanic. Disparities in course offerings mean some students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career in STEM. So when their son was not chosen to attend a popular public magnet school, they found a way to get him into a suburban school. “We thought about moving, but we can’t sell our house – nobody wants to move into a failing school district.”
While these parents’ predicaments are troubling, the situation is also problematic for the schools these children now attend. A school administrator explained, “It’s called ‘boundary hopping’ and it’s against the law. School district funding comes from local property taxes. When you don’t live and pay taxes in the district your children attend, your kids become an unfunded burden on the receiving school. ” She says it’s getting worse as urban school districts struggle with budget cuts, teacher recruitment and retention problems, low test scores, and a myriad of other problems.
One of the parents whose children are attending an out-of-district school said, “I know it’s against the rules. But education is vital to my children’s futures, and until my family can access a quality public education in our own neighborhood, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”