I write a lot about life in the big city. But though I was born and educated there, I don't live in the city. I live in a small town in New Jersey right across the Hudson River from the big city. Life is good in our small town. My neighbors are friendly, helpful people. Our downtown area is safe and vibrant, but not too big; we have a good diner, a reasonably good supermarket, and a nice place to grab a cup of coffee with a friend. There are farmer's markets and street fairs in the summer, and our public library hosts cultural events of all kinds, all year round.
And there are really, really good public schools. Our schools are the envy of most of the state of New Jersey and maybe even the nation. My children are privileged to live in a place where they can safely walk to a school that will give them a first-rate education. In fact, our schools are so good, it appears that people from all over come to our town to take advantage of them. People who don't live here and don't pay the relatively high property taxes that finance our schools.
I was surprised when I first heard the whispers, a few years ago, that our schools had apparently been invaded by nonresidents. After all, it seemed to me to be pretty difficult to pretend to live somewhere that you didn't really live. We all know each other here, and there is a pretty high level of parent involvement in the schools. The kid whose parents don't live in the neighborhood is sure to stand out like a sore thumb.
Besides, the process for enrolling a child in one of our schools has always been positively draconian. Two years ago, when I attempted to enroll my oldest daughter in the high school, I was turned away because I could not produce a paper copy of a utility bill that had been mailed to me at my house. (I pay my utility bills online, so I had no paper invoices.) The mean lady behind the counter would not accept my bank statement or my driver's license. She dismissed my claim that I had two other children already enrolled in the system. Rules are rules, and in this little town, they don't bend for anyone.
Given that a twenty-year resident can't get her kid into the high school, it struck me as odd that Someone Who Didn't Live Here was apparently managing to sponge an education off of all those good, honest, old-fashioned folks who still write a check every month to Public Service Electric and Gas. The problem was so bad that the town actually paid someone to track these evil children down and kick them out.
Well, thank goodness for that.
Except that it apparently didn't work.
So now there's a new plan. Now, if you are a parent registering a young scholar, whether for the first or thirteenth time, you must appear in person at the Board of Education building on a designated date with "FOUR proofs of residence AND your child's ORIGINAL BIRTH CERTIFICATE with the raised seal or a passport with family census. Homeowners must provide at least one of the items [listed below] in BOLD plus 3 additional proofs." (I have copied this instruction directly from the flyer I got in the mail from the Board of Ed. The emphasis is theirs. Or hers, I should say; the flyer is signed by our superintendent.)
Four proofs of residence? And what exactly is a family census? I've examined my passport pretty closely, and all I can see is a pretty ugly double-chinned portrait of myself and a few stamps from countries across the Atlantic Ocean from here. I don't see anything that even remotely resembles proof that my children live in any particular town.
I try pretty hard not to write about politics, mostly because I am aware of the distance between my views and the mainstream. I am prepared to take a fair amount of grief for saying this out loud, but I'll do it anyway:
What is wrong with a system that has come to this? Where children are forced to sneak around to get an education of a quality their parents' paychecks don't deserve? Where self-righteous residents proudly display their tax bills to a bureaucrat so they can demonstrate that they are entitled to enroll their children in a better school than other parents? Is the accidental education of a child - a CHILD - a societal wrong that merits this sort of Arizona-legislature-type action? Is the wrongful seeking of knowledge a crime in our society?
I, for one, am willing to overlook (and, yes, to pay for) the occasional errant education. And, in the long term, to help look for a more workable solution for all of the children. Education of our society as a whole is a better investment than giving the homeless guy a dollar in Starbucks, and, as we have established, I do that sort of thing all the time.