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Felicity Huffman Deserves Jail Time, But Many Parents Commit Fraud

You may believe that the college admissions scandal was an aberration. It was not.

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On Monday, actress Felicity Huffman pled guilty of fraud for paying to improve her daughter’s score on the SAT exam. Huffman admitted that she paid admissions scam ringleader William “Rick” Singer $15,000, ostensibly as a charitable donation to his foundation, to doctor her daughter’s results. Though prosecutors recommended Huffman spend four months behind bars and pay a $20,000 fine, it’s anyone’s guess as to what sentence the judge will ultimately hand down. Whatever happens, it’s important to acknowledge that while Huffman’s case and Lori Loughlin’s case have been high profile, they are not unique. Parents commit fraud all the time to give kids an edge.

Fraud is one of the few activities pursued by parents all walks of life; the consequences they face when found out are, however, less consistent.

While all 50 of the rich parents charged in the college admission scandal were focused on elite universities, educational fraud happens at all school and socioeconomic levels. Consider a 2017 report that found 30 percent of the students enrolled at Washington DC’s public Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts fraudulently claimed residency in the school district to gain admittance. In California, there were 50 cases of enrollment fraud in the San Francisco Unified School District between 2017 and 2018. Private investigators are frequently hired by school districts to investigate enrollment fraud.

It’s not difficult to figure out what might motivate a parent to commit fraud for the sake of their kid’s education. The paths to economic success have narrowed significantly over the decades. The loss of apprenticeships, good manufacturing jobs and the decline of unions have ensured that a high school diploma is no longer enough to earn a decent wage in the United States. At the same time, admission into Universities and colleges has become increasingly competitive. Giving kids an early lead in the system feels more and more necessary to parents worried that their children will be financially hobbled in a country dogged by economic inequality.

Fraud can seem, in short, like the responsible thing to do. And for some — certainly not Felicity Huffman, but those who can’t afford access — it might be.

The reality is that many children start from behind in public schools. According to the Education Law Center, the majority of states have school funding systems that result in funding distributions which ignore the fact that poorer districts require more funds for base needs. That creates a vicious regressive cycle where schools in poor districts get less funding and further hurt opportunities for already disadvantaged kids. Is it any wonder then that a parent would lie about where they are living to get a child on a better track?

That’s not to say we should forgive enrollment fraud. It’s a crime tantamount to stealing tax money from parents who are paying into the district. It also exacerbates problems with already strained systems. But it’s one thing to say that something is wrong and another to say that it is not understandable. Many acts of enrollment fraud are entirely understandable. They are thrown into sharp relief by the craven acts of privileged actresses.

Still, fraud is fraud and we should at least acknowledge it as a symptom of an education system in need of a serious overhaul. When a system has become so bad that both the ultra-rich and the very poor feel compelled to break the law, it’s safe to conclude that something isn’t working.

If Huffman does any jail time — and let’s hope she does — it will represent some semblance of justice for parents that didn’t cheat. But It won’t do anything to address the base issue: We have created an education system that makes succeeding without cheating feel impossible.