Law & Principles

Ray Carter | February 21, 2024

Oklahoma Senate committee votes to scrap parent penalty

Ray Carter

On a bipartisan basis, members of a Senate committee have voted to repeal a portion of state law that threatens parents with up to a year in jail if they try to enroll their children in a school by falsely claiming to live in that district.

Under current state law, a parent who falsely claims to reside in a public-school district can face up to one year in jail and a $500 fine.

Senate Bill 1566, by state Sen. Ally Seifried, would eliminate that penalty.

“In light of some of our open-transfer reforms that were passed in 2022, this language is no longer relevant since children are able to move from district to district,” said Seifried, R-Claremore. “I am a strong proponent of empowering parents to choose the schools, the school districts, the school sites that best support their students.”

The penalty for seeking admission to a public school using a false address is greater than the penalty for failing to provide a child any education under Oklahoma’s compulsory-education law, which requires either homeschooling or attendance at a public or private school.

Under Oklahoma law, parents who do not provide any education to their children face a maximum of only 15 days imprisonment, and that penalty is not imposed until the third violation. That’s far less than the one year in jail facing parents who try to enroll a child in the “wrong” district.

“Oklahoma is one of only 15 states that criminalizes parents for providing, maybe, an inaccurate address, so we are definitely in the minority there,” Seifried said.

In 2019, a staffer from Union Public Schools generated controversy when he knocked on the door of a student’s home and asked to see the 12-year-old girl’s bedroom.

In other states with similar parent penalties, enforcement of the law has drawn strong condemnation because the parents targeted are often low-income individuals whose children are otherwise stuck in dangerous and/or poor-performing school districts.

In 2011 in Ohio, Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black single mother, faced five years in prison because she used her father’s home address when enrolling her daughters in a better school.

Similarly, in 2011, Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother, was charged with first-degree larceny and faced 20 years in prison after she used a friend’s address to register her child in the Norwalk, Connecticut district.

While students can enroll in any Oklahoma public-school district under the state’s open-transfer law, districts are allowed to turn away students if the district is at capacity.

Supporters noted SB 1566 allows schools to continue checking student addresses for accuracy.

“Even without the penalties, a school district can still deny a transfer because they verified the person does not live inside of their district, but we’re not going to put them in jail if they lie about it, correct?” said state Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle.

Some schools have staff dedicated to verifying student addresses. In 2019, a staffer from Union Public Schools generated controversy when he knocked on the door of a student’s home and asked to see the 12-year-old girl’s bedroom.

“The school district has the ability to fact-check,” Seifried said. “They can still not approve that transfer. They can still verify the location. So I really do feel like checks and balances have been covered in this bill. Additionally, I’m not entirely convinced that fining parents and charging them with a misdemeanor is something that the state of Oklahoma wants to do when that parent, if they did provide a wrong address, is only trying to find the best school for their student.”

SB 1566 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 9-3 vote. The bill now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma Senate.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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