A couple in Philadelphia a better school for their daughter than the failing school where they lived — and for pursuing that, they now face felony charges. In August, Hamlet and Olesia Garcia were charged with “theft of services” for lying about their residence in order to allow their daughter to attend school outside their zoned school district. In Pennsylvania, theft of services is a third degree felony which carries with it a sentence of up to 7 years in prison.
The charges were brought by the Lower Moreland School District, located in Montgomery County, who claim that the Garcias sent their daughter to the school even though they did not pay property taxes in that district. In total, the Garcias are accused of stealing $10,752.81-worth of services from Lower Moreland.
Those who believe that the school funding formula used in Pennsylvania is unfair and disadvantages poorer families have rallied behind the Garcias. Lawmakers and civil rights advocates spoke up in support for the Garcias, who they say are the victims — not the criminals — in this case.
“The District Attorney should go after real criminals and not put parents in prison facing up to seven years and be registered as felons because they allegedly stole a quality education,” said former California State Senator Gloria Romero.
Romero introduced the nation’s first ‘Parent trigger’ law in 2008, which allows parents of a failing school district to vote on a method to restructure the school, mostly by transforming it into a charter school.
Meanwhile, Hamlet Garcia called the entire incident “a misunderstanding,” and said that he didn’t understand why the district attorney is continuing to pursue a criminal case when the Garcias have already indicated a willingness to repay the funds to the district. Yet, according to Bethlehem Area School Superintendent Joseph Roy, incidents like this one will continue to happen unless the state takes to create a more equitable way of funding schools and school districts.
“This issue of inequities and funding has been going on for years and there have been different efforts to try to adjust it but never to full satisfaction,” said Roy.
As for a solution, those involved like the Garcias’ attorney Thomas Kenny said it’s up to legislators, “I would very much like the laws in the commonwealth to change and I hope today is the start of that process happening,” he said.
Kenny also said that the state should take on more of the funding responsibility from local taxpayers to create larger districts that balance wealthier communities with poorer ones.