The Double Scandal of Illegal School Choice


I find it impossible not to watch Jim Hummel’s investigation of Johnston town council member Stephanie Manzi, who sends her children to Narragansett High School on the pretense of a summer cottage that she and her husband own there, without having some sympathy for the target.

Yes, it’s scandalous that an elected official would do things that appear to be illegal — or at best legally questionable — when it comes to her own family’s choices. And of course, it compounds the scandal that her family profits so much from government in Rhode Island, with her husband, Paul, receiving a pension for his time as a Johnston police officer in addition to his pay as a Rhode Island College cop, which totaled $52,551 in fiscal year 2015, according to the state’s transparency site.

The deeper scandal, though, is the one that has more effect on all of our lives in the Ocean State — namely, that our system drives people to take such drastic measures to educate their children. Even if Manzi is telling the truth, that her family effectively splits up for the school year, it’s a pretty drastic measure. Our method of providing all education through a rigid structure of government schools, except for those who are able to secure funding for private schools or luck into a charter lottery, distorts economic, educational, and even familial incentives and harms families.

Even look at a side-scandal that Hummel presents in the case against Manzi: the fact that she claims a homestead exemption to lower her Johnston property taxes by 20%. If it weren’t evidence that she’s skirting the law, that would be entirely reasonable… even fair. Narragansett is the town saddled with the cost of educating her children, not Johnston, so the fact that she reduces her Johnston tax bill by about $1,600 per year would almost be like a voucher if she sent the money to Narragansett schools.

The greater scandal would be if she were claiming homestead on her family’s cottage. Although the Manzis pay about half as much in property taxes in Narragansett as they do in Johnston, their little cottage near the shore is actually assessed at a higher value than their larger home up north. In other words, they’re paying their full freight for use of the Narragansett school system.

In January of last year, I looked at data collected by the College Board, through its Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), and found that Rhode Islanders are already exercising school choice to a greater degree than parents in other states by choosing lower-cost private schools. The Manzi family illustrates how strong the desire for some other option is around here.

This morning, Monique noted that Mrs. Manzi is the Dean of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University, but there’s not really an irony in that. It is an injustice that communities are forced to fund the ever-growing costs of schools that children are forced to attend against the desires of their parents. It is an injustice that families should have to make all sorts of consequential life decisions about where and how to live in order to be able to afford both their property taxes and an adequate education for their children. I’d suggest that a system that makes following three children to school every day legitimate journalism (and it is absolutely legitimate, in this case) cannot be otherwise than unjust.

If only the RI insiders who are willing to go to such lengths to give their own children advantages would help, rather than hinder, their neighbors’ ability to do the same.

  • ShannonEntropy

    It is an injustice that families should have to make all sorts of consequential life decisions about where and how to live in order to be able to afford both their property taxes and an adequate education for their children.

    I am sending this quote to my daughter & SIL who live in Cranston and pay $400 / month in property taxes and are facing the prospect of their kid ending up at Cranston East … Yikes !!

    They are desperately looking to move to a community with better schools

    They could stay put & fake it & use our addy here in Warwick … but then the kid would end up at Pilgrim HS … not a hole lot better

    The best trick I’ve seen so far is my brother-in-law … he lives here in Warwick but used a Zip Code trick to send his kids to school in East Greenwich [[ Google ‘02818’ ]]

    The things ya gotta do to get by in this State amiright ??

  • Rhett Hardwick

    This is not a Rhode Island phenomenon. Back when I still read dead tree newspapers there were numerous stories like this from Massachusetts.