From the conviction of Akron, Ohio, mother Kelley Williams-Bolar earlier this year, to the arrest of homeless mother Tanya McDowell of Bridgeport, Conn., the ridiculous concept of “stealing education” and the school residency laws and other Zip Code Education policies that perpetuate this problem, has become one of the biggest topics of discussion in the battle to reform American public education. And as with so much of traditional public education, the zoned schooling policies and other aspects of Zip Code Education perpetuate perverse actions that lead to the denial of high-quality education to children and their families (who pay thousands of dollars annually in taxes into a system that doesn’t allow for real choices) engaging in actions that they shouldn’t have to do in the first place.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel explains why we must end Zip Code Education policies that turn law-abiding parents into criminals just so that they can help their kids succeed in school and in life. Read, consider, and take action.

As we all know, school districts have now resorted to arresting parents, the primary caregivers of their children, for the “theft of a free education” because they are willing to do all that they can — even place their kids in districts outside of their own cities — to help them get the best education possible, and in the case of homeless families, just to make sure that their kids stay in school. This year alone, we have seen parents such as Tanya McDowell of Norwalk, Conn., Akron, Ohio, mother Kelley Williams-Bolar, and Marie Menard, a grandmother in Stratford, Conn., arrested for stealing education.

Arresting these families doesn’t address the educational challenges facing our nation.

These parents are “stealing education” because their kids aren’t getting the learning they deserve. The fact still remains that too many students in this country are not graduating from high school and college with the skill-sets they need to become productive citizens, engaged community leaders, and participants in a trained and qualified workforce. The fact remains that far too many schools are dangerous for kids, either because of bullying, crime, and structural damage.

Think about it as a parent? Would you send your child to a school that systematically did not enforce bully prevention policies? Would you send your child to a school that chronically failed to meet school goals in core subjects like reading, math and writing? Would you send your child to a school that you know had crumbling walls, unsafe levels of mold and asbestos? Would you send your child to a school that had no books, technology, or even arts education? And would you send your child to a school that had over 500 children and one part-time nurse?

Many of us, as parents, will answer no to these questions, yet we send our children to some of these types of schools with these types of conditions everyday because school districts limit our choices based on our zip code. And, unfortunately, for those parents that answer no to these questions and choose to use another address of a friend or family member to ensure the safety and educational well being of their child, they may face criminal charges and prosecution.

For those that say, “I have choice”, how much choice do you really have? You put your child’s name in a lottery and cross your fingers and hope you get chosen.  Is that really choice? To know my child’s access to a great school depends on chance seems like torture to me. And for those who have to pay out of their pockets for choice? You shouldn’t have to pay beyond what you put into public schools as taxpayers so you can give your kids a quality education.

Today, we have made it impossible for parents to provide their kids with better schools. In many states across the country, school district residency laws are written to arrest and convict parents or guardians of children that choose to send their child to a school that may do a better job at meeting their child’s academic and life needs, regardless of zip code.

This puts every parent, including those who are poor, into untenable positions. They can choose to deny children access to a great education by continuing to enroll them in seriously low performing schools, try to find enough money to move to a more affluent neighborhood (good luck with that ) or face possible jail time or probation for using another address, in another zip code, just to get a chance at a good education. Wow. These are terrible — and unnecessary — options.

We need to aggressively transform how we fund education.

First, parents, guardians of children, community leaders and social justice advocates must collectively work together and abolish unconstitutional school residency laws in all states. This means bringing lawsuits that show that zip code education violates the U.S. constitution’s equal protection clause and similar clauses in state constitutions throughout the nation. The Connecticut Parents Union has filed suit earlier this year on behalf of Menard based on this line of argument as well as the fact that the Stratford school district embarked on filing heavy-handed criminal charges in violation of the state’s own rules for due process in stealing education cases. (This was also the problem in the Tanya McDowell case.)

Second? Parents, voters and tax payers must work together and collectively hold state and federal government accountable in holding local school districts accountable for better academic outcomes because a large portion of the funds that most local school districts receive come from the state and federal government. These federal and state dollars come from we the people who are also taxpayers, parents and voters.

Third: Parents and taxpayers need to advocate for per pupil funding to be attached to each child (money follows the child). This would help expand options and ensure that taxpayers in one district are not paying for kids living in another.

And finally, parents and taxpayers must work together and demand options. Our country is founded on consumer choice and parents should have the right to choose a good school for their child regardless of where they live.

Parents should not be forced to become criminals in order to help their kids get the schools they deserve.