Featherstone: 'Address deception' reveals NYC's education inequity

Fifth grade teacher Millie Ramirez speaks with students

Fifth grade teacher Millie Ramirez speaks with students at PS 188 in the East Village. (Credit: Getty Images)

'Balls out," a neighbor advised, when my aspiring kindergartner didn't get a spot in a coveted Brooklyn public school. She urged me not to passively accept fate: "I'd do anything to get my kids into the school I wanted. Anything."

That's exactly the commendable attitude that got Tonya McDowell, a homeless single mother in Bridgeport, Conn., in big trouble. McDowell was sentenced last year to five years in prison for, in a jarring phrase, "stealing education." She lied about her address to send her kindergartner to a better school in well-off Norwalk.

The story has recently been given new life through status updates and shares on Facebook, and it's easy to understand the fascination. New York City's kindergarten application deadline just passed, and placement offers will be sent out in a few weeks. Some parents may have engaged in a little address deception of their own.

At several of Brooklyn's sought-after elementary schools, the use of fake addresses is so common that during the open house tours, school principals warn prospective parents that officials may make surprise visits to make sure your child lives at the home listed on his application.

At one such school, the South Brooklyn Post has reported, officials have encouraged parents to rat out anyone attending under a false address -- and some parents have endorsed this neighborhood watch approach. The issue isn't limited to Brooklyn. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported on frustrated parents complaining about address deception in Forest Hills. Other desirable neighborhoods have their own stories.

Granted, for families who cram into tiny apartments in pricey neighborhoods, it's annoying when others attend the same schools without making such sacrifices. For parents who pay high rents and mortgages to live in a good school zone, and then find the school so crowded with interlopers that their kid can't get a seat, it's infuriating.

But desperate parents aren't the problem. The problem is inequality -- and rather than pointing fingers, we should work harder to make sure every neighborhood has excellent schools.

Public schools shouldn't be well-guarded fiefdoms. No one should have to lie -- or live in a fancy ZIP code -- to secure a great education for her kids.

Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

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