SAN FRANCISCO – Just over a year ago, Hamlet Garcia climbed up the steps of a stately courthouse in Norristown, Pa., wondering how much longer he would be free.
The Philadelphia resident and his wife, Olesia, an insurance agent, were about to go on trial for theft of services, an offense usually reserved for cable service pilferers and restaurant bill dodgers. Their alleged crime: stealing an education for their 8-year-old daughter, Fiorella.
He was staring at possibly seven years behind bars.
Garcia, who came to the United States from Cuba when he was 18, remembers thinking one thing as he headed into the courthouse: “This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in America.”
Their case is one of a handful in recent years in which families living in districts with failing schools have been accused of “stealing an education.” Some have been heavily fined for lying about where they live. Others have been criminally charged and, in some cases, jailed.
Such draconian measures are helping to popularize a new term: “education theft.” Civil rights groups and education activists say anecdotal evidence suggests these practices may be on the rise.
“I’m hearing about it more and more every year,” said Gloria Romero, a former California state senator and founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment.
The examples are many. And while perhaps extreme, they are worrying civil rights activists, parent advocacy groups and some local politicians who say strict enforcement strategies unfairly impact poor families of color, who cannot easily pay their way out of trouble by refunding the value of their children’s allegedly stolen schooling.
Jonah Edelman, the CEO of Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group, says that his group does not condone parents breaking the law.
“But the real crime, which needs to be prosecuted, is the glaring inequity in the quality of schools in rich areas versus poor ones,” he said.
In the case of the Garcias, the father says that during the 2011-2012 school year, his wife and daughter spent nine months during a marital separation living with his wife’s father in Lower Moreland. His daughter attended the district’s much-sought-after elementary school.
The local district attorney’s office contends Garcia and his wife were never truly separated and that they always lived in neighboring northwest Philadelphia and lied to gain entry into the Lower Moreland schools.
They “essentially stole from every hard-working taxpayer who resides within the Lower Moreland School District,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman told reporters.
The couple entered into a plea bargain last year, agreeing to pay nearly $11,000 in back tuition in exchange for no charges against Olesia Garcia and a reduced charge and fine for her husband. Legal fees ran about $70,000. They are hoping to send their daughter to a private school.
“It’s a ‘gotcha’ thing,” said Gwen Samuel, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which has helped to support a handful of families that have been criminally charged for enrollment fraud and related offenses. “What’s troubling now is the length that districts are willing to go. You see residency officers more than ever, and this practice of treating families like they’ve robbed a bank. It has become the norm to treat them like criminals.”