Betsy DeVos

Why Are Black Parents Being Punished for Trying to Educate Their Kids?

When white parents take their kids out of failing schools, they’re deemed responsible. When Black parents, like Kiarre Harris, do it, they’re called criminals and suffer brutal consequences.

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The law has come down on another Black mother for wanting the best education for her children. Kiarre Harris, a single mother in Buffalo, NewYork, was arrested last month after removing her two children from the failing elementary school that they were attending. Her crime: exercising school choice by deciding to educate her children at home.

Despite the legality of homeschooling, Harris was put in handcuffs after the Buffalo Public Schools District contacted Child Protective Services to report that her children were no longer in school. The original court petition filed against Harris alleges that she didn’t provide stable housing for her children, has a history of domestic abuse, and had been reported previously to CPS for not adequately supervising her children. Yet it was the homeschooling—the audacity to opt out of the system and take a more empowered path—that tipped the balance and led to legal charges against Harris and the feeding of her children into the foster care system.

As the Black parenting blog My Brown Baby reports, “Kiarre maintains she removed her children from the system, following all protocol and procedure … However, CPS and the court pressed on. After her arrest and a failed attempt to hide her children’s whereabouts, Kiarre relented. Her children were taken into child protective custody and placed temporarily into the foster care system.”

The widespread support from parents and activists is not simply about the larger reality of the American injustice system; nor is the fight simply about Harris getting her children from the system. It is about the fight to protect the growing Black homeschooling population.

According to the National Home Education Research Students, Black families are one of the fastest-growing groups in the homeschooling movement—it shouldn’t be surprising that more and more Black parents are taking their children’s education into their own hands considering the systemic inequities of the nation’s school systems, the increased criminalization of adolescent behaviors, and the disproportionate numbers of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of our children. In 2015, some 220,000 African-American children were being homeschooled—about 10 percent of the homeschooling demographic. This compares with the roughly 16 percent of Black children in public schools across the country.

Despite the GOP’s vocal support for school “choice”— which they argue gives parents alternatives to public schools, like charters, magnets, and private schools claiming it is designed to ensure that kids get a quality education, while siphoning tax dollars away from traditional schools to often fund schools with, especially now that Betsy DeVos is the Secretary of Education, a religious indoctrination, turning schools into corporate profit centers—the criminalization of Black parents seeking a better education for their kids is nothing new. However most of these past cases involve parents “boundary hopping” by sending their children to school in districts outside of where they live.

In 2009, Yolanda Miranda was arrested for sending her four kids to school in the Greece School District near Rochester, New York, where her mother lived, instead of the poorly resourced Rochester City School District where they lived. The target of a four-month investigation, Miranda faced several charges including grand larceny, and accusations that taxpayers spent $28,000 to send her children to the Greece district schools. While the charges were eventually lowered to a misdemeanor, Miranda had already spent time in jail. For her, it was time well spent. Miranda reported that she did not regret the time spent in jail for her kids to get a better education and that she would do it all again.

In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar was sentenced to ten days in jail followed by three years of probation and 80 hours of community service for sending her two children to school in Copley, Ohio, where their father lived, while they resided in Akron.

Charles Lauron, a single father in Louisville, Kentucky, faced felony charges of theft by deception for enrolling his son in the Oldham County Schools when he lived in nearby Lyndon. He was billed $26,000 and threatened with up to a decade of prison time. Other parents who lived outside the Oldham County School district faced similar charges and consequences for sending their children to the out-of-district schools including John Buehner, Jim McGuire, and Dawne Grigsby—all non-white parents.

That same year, Annette Callahan was threatened with arrest because two of her children attended school in the Illinois Beach Park School District where their father lived, while they resided in nearby Waukegan. Since the divorced parents had joint custody, the children were allowed to stay in the better school district as long as they agreed to plan for the children to live within school boundaries.

Ana Wade of Milford, Connecticut, sent her two sons to live with their grandmother, Marie Menard in Stratford, where they attended school. Wade lived in an apartment where the boys visited on weekends. In 2010, the school district had both Wade and Menard arrested for “stealing” nearly $40,000 worth of education. They ended up on accelerated probation, paying $13,000 in restitution on a monthly basis.

Soon thereafter Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed a law that changes boundary-hopping school cases from chargeable larceny offenses to being handed by an administrative hearing officer so that parents can appeal officers’ decisions to the state board of education.

In 2014, Hamlet and Olesia Garcia of Philadelphia went on trial for “theft of services,” which normally refers to unauthorized use of cable services and people who leave restaurants without paying for the food they’ve eaten. They had to defend themselves against “stealing” an education for their 8-year-old daughter. Hamlet, a Cuban immigrant, faced a potential sentence of seven years. After admitting in court that he broke the law, Hamlet and his father-in-law, Grigori Sofitchouk, were ordered to pay nearly $10,800 in restitution to the school district that the child had attended. Charges against Hamlet’s wife, Olesia, were dropped.

These “boundary-hopping” charges across the country aren’t new. Seven states and the District of Columbia can jail parents for this offense: Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.

Parents of color who are in school districts that are segregated and unequal are trying to do what’s best for their kids and getting punished for it, while white parents essentially do it all the time without repercussions. And in fact, DeVos and the GOP are pushing for that kind of boundary hopping and calling it “school choice.”

Amid the growing homeschooling movement, there have been few, if any, reports among the 90 percent of non-Black homeschooling parents facing the kind of legal or criminal consequences that Harris and her children have suffered. Their families aren’t imprisoned and torn apart to feed a system that feasts on inequality and “gaps” in education that are then blamed on Black people for not being “competitive” with Whites.

The differential responses are not the only difference. White families typically homeschool because of moral or religious disagreements with the culture or teachings of public schools. On the other hand, research shows that Black families have different reasons. As The Atlantic reports, “African-American parents are increasingly taking their kids’ education into their own hands—and in many cases, it’s to protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping. Black families are more likely to cite the culture of low expectations for African-American students, or dissatisfaction with how their children—especially boys—are treated in schools.”

Temple University faculty member Marie-Josée Cérol, who is known professionally as Ama Mazama, is one of the nation’s leading experts in Black homeschooling. “We have all heard that the American education system is not the best and is falling behind in terms of international standards,” she told the The Atlantic. “But this is compounded for Black children, who are treated as though they are not as intelligent and cannot perform as well, and therefore the standards for them should be lower.”

Given these very different contexts, as well as the “criminalization of poverty” within the Black community, there is rightful fear in the potential criminalization of Black parents. Black parents are in a no-win situation: damned by poverty and inferior schools, and punished for wanting something better for their children.

Whether “boundary-hopping” or homeschooling, this nation wants control over where and how Black students are educated. It doesn’t want to break the chain of institutional racism that we see in public schools and the criminal injustice system. Harris’s case suggests that Black families might face closer scrutiny and consequences that feed right into the pipeline of dead ends, despair, and destruction.

For Black families in America, education remains a privilege and not a right. Despite the desegregation policies that grew from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education  ruling in 1954, the right and the access to quality schooling isn’t any more equal now. A family living in poverty has few options to get the education that breaks the cycle of economic inequity and gives Black students a shot at the American Dream. The whole system is stacked against Black achievement, success and empowerment.

This criminalization extends to some Black educators as well. Let’s not forget what happened to Black teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public School system who were imprisoned for changing test scores. As I wrote in an earlier column, “Dear White People: Your Kids Are Getting Screwed, Too,” “The Atlanta cheating scandal and the White middle-class revolt against standardized testing have more in common than you think: They’re a repudiation of our failed education policies.”

These issues are bound to worsen amid Trump’s plan to dismantle public education. When he named Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, all pretense and illusions were stripped before our eyes. But the movement to dismantle public education began long ago. Everyone—families, students and communities—fare better by a public investment approach to education that supports all students than by the present market-based approach which assigns winners and losers based on income and often race.

“When education becomes a market-based commodity, we risk places children’s learning in competitive ‘survival of the fittest’ contexts,” states an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune. “With schools besieged by test-driven curriculum mandates, parents who would otherwise select neighborhood public schools are increasingly driven to look elsewhere.” And DeVos’s family “has aggressively funded and advocated for school alternatives that support privatization: the funneling of public sector funds into the private sector.”

With homeschooling on the rise as a last resort for Black parents desperate to get their children some kind of decent education, criminalizing those who try to do better is simply another link in America’s chain of doing any and everything to keep Black people under control.

Divestment from public education, like the criminalization of “boundary hopping,” fits wihin a larger history. Black children MUST remain trapped in a broken system that disables them intellectually and demeans them culturally, spiritually, and emotionally. Confined to failing schools, Black children are subjected to heightened disciplinary practices, including suspensions and expulsion, collectively pushed from down the pipeline into America’s ultimate person wharehouse: the prison.

Fear of an educated, empowered Black population is behind so many of our government policies—and it will become increasingly clear as Trump moves ahead with his agenda to “Make America Great Again”—now, as always, on the backs of and at the expense of Black minds, bodies, and souls.

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