If you want to fully understand why we must overhaul school funding in order to allow children to get a high-quality education, consider the case of Annette Callahan, a Waukegan, Il., mother who now faces the possibility of being brought up on charges by the Beach Park school district for what can only laughingly be called stealing education — even though her children live part time in the district with her ex-husband.

A divorced mother of five who, along with her ex-husband, Samuel, has gotten three of her children through high school and into college, Annette became incensed with the quality of education for her two remaining twin school-aged children, Hannah and Josiah. She learned that their state standardized tests showed the kids falling behind in reading and math — even as teachers continued to pass the kids along from one grade to another and, in fact, put on the honor roll of the elementary school in which they attended. The fact that Josiah was also being bullied in school — including a head injury at the end of the year — also also incensed her. Yet, according to Annette, Waukegan school leaders refused to address those issues in any meaningful way. By the 2009-2010 school year, Annette says that the Waukegan district banned her and Samuel from escorting Hannah and Josiah to their classes.

So Annette and Samuel did what parents who loves their children would do: She worked together with her ex-husband — who shares joint custody with her — to enroll her kids into the nearby Beach Park district in which he lived. While Hannah and Josiah would stay over for a night or two when Samuel wasn’t working his overnight job, the kids would spend their time with Annette in Waukegan during the rest of the week. It worked. Annette and teachers at the Beach Park School, Howe Elementary, worked together to improve her children’s achievement; she did her part by making the kids spend even more time on their studies. By the end of the 2010-2011 school year, Callahan’s kids made gains in their studies and test scores. Says Samuel in a press conference held this morning: “They have been successful there.” (Dropout Nation has an audio copy of the press conference call available for download and listening; you can also listen below.)

But since November, Annette and her ex-husband have been fighting with Beach Park’s bureaucrats, which are accusing her and her husband of “falsifying residency” because, despite the fact that the husband lives in the district and has both kids named on his apartment lease, the fact that the kids spend more time with her makes them not residents of the district. While Annette and Samuel made clear that the children were on the lease and that they shared joint custody, the district and its investigator have decided that the kids need to get out of the district. Tonight, Annette will petition her case before the Beach Park district’s board, one month after it issued a demand for her to remove Josiah and Hannah from the school without first giving her a chance to plead her case. She is also demanding Beach Park to release the evidence it gathered through its investigator that led to the district’s determination. Says Annette: “I am not a lawyer, but I know that the residency of the parent does matter. And my husband lives in the district… there is no 24-hour requirement.” (A call by Dropout Nation to Beach Park superintendent Robert DiVirgilio, has not yet been returned.)

Dropout Nation is supportive of Annette’s efforts to keep her kids in Beach Park schools. You can offer your support, either by reaching DiVirgilio at (847) 599-5070 or at rdivirgilio@bpd3.org.

As with the cases of Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar (who was convicted last year of “stealing education”), and others facing similar charges as Tanya McDowell and grandmother Marie Menard in Connecticut, Annette and Samuel are fighting hard to provide their children with the high-quality schools and safe learning environments they need to succeed in life. And, like these and other parents, Annette and Samuel shouldn’t have to struggle so hard in the first place. No family should have to be shackled to dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity. They should have the ability to escape those failure factories and attend any high quality school available to them.

At the heart of this problem are the Zip Code Education policies — including zoned schooling within district and restrictions on school choice supported by education traditionalists — that restrict the ability of all families to choose high-quality schools of any kind for their kids. While poor and minority families suffer the most by being shackled to failure mills in their neighborhoods, middle class families (especially those who are minority or the first in their generation to achieve such status) suffer almost equally as badly, often restricted to warehouses of mediocrity whose shiny new buildings hide laggard instruction and low expectations for poor white, black and Latino kids.

What perpetuates this problem is the hemming and hawing among states about taking over the full funding role that they need to undertake in order to make choice and other reforms a reality. Thanks to decades of battles over equal funding of schools and efforts at property tax relief, states now provide the plurality of all school dollars, accounting for 48 percent of all school revenues nationwide. Illinois is an exception, with the state providing 30 percent of school funding overall; but state dollars account for 41 percent of Beach Park’s school dollars and 38 percent of Waukegan’s funds. States could easily pave the way for choice by replacing all local funding with state dollars, essentially turning the dollars into vouchers that follow every child to whatever school, public, private or parochial, they so choose.

Yet governors and legislators — especially school reform-minded officials — haven’t fully embraced moving towards full state funding, even though it isn’t that hard to do politically. the fiscal difficulties of increasing state income taxes in order to reduce local property taxes (the usual way states have used to take over education funding), along with the challenges of dealing with ever-increasing Medicaid costs, and the opposition of teachers’ unions and districts to such a takeover, are the underlying reasons. But all of those could be overcome. But because state leaders aren’t willing to do so, this stalemate allows districts can justify opposition to school choice; after all, they can oppose school choice because they still collect local property tax dollars and parents outside their boundaries don’t provide those funds (even though they are financing the same schools through their state income taxes). At the same time, the districts can even deny choice to the children they are supposed to serve by continuing zoned school policies.

Meanwhile this unwillingness to overhaul school financing perpetuates one of the tenets of the Poverty Myth of Education held so deeply by so many education traditionalists: That poor and minorities don’t share the same interest in providing their children with a high quality education as they do, and won’t do whatever it takes to help their kids succeed. This racialist and condescending notion never considers the reality that for these families, simply moving from one zip code to another can be economically impossible — and given that districts often arbitrarily change their zoning policies, even moving residences doesn’t guarantee high-quality school options.

More importantly, this thinking ignores the empirical evidence that poor and minority families desire high quality education. Minorities and parents in high-poverty districts, for example, were more likely than middle-class parents to request a teacher for their child based on how teachers improved student achievement, according to a 2005 study by University of Michigan researcher Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University. Some 420,000 children are waiting for seats in the nation’s charter schools, the nation’s most-prominent form of choice; minorities make up 30 percent of enrollment in the nation’s dwindling collection of Catholic diocesan schools.

There is no reason why Annette and Samuel, who have already shepherded three children through American public education into college and career — and merely want to help their youngest children achieve the same —  should have to fight so hard to give Josiah and Hannah a high-quality education. It is high time to end Zip Code Education that wrongly criminalize the fight to provide every child what they deserve.

[An update on the Annette Callahan case is here.]