Police in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Greece recently arrested, jailed and delivered in chains to a local courthouse a 33-year-old brown-skinned woman named Yolanda Miranda, also known as Yolanda Hill. A judge read the charge of grand larceny and set Hill’s bail at $25,000. Her alleged crime? Using her mother’s suburban address and enrolling her children in the Greece public schools while living about nine miles away in Rochester.

She told reporters outside the courthouse she was just trying to “get the best for my kids.” Her teenage daughter, Santazcha, who sat in the front row at her mother’s arraignment, added, “My mom only did what was right because she loved us. She’s not a criminal.”

In keeping with our purported “postracial” era, local commentators ignored the matters of race, class and inequality at the center of this case, framing it instead in the language of law and order. Woman Arrested in School Scam Appears in Court, read a headline in the Democrat and Chronicle. The paper even provided Greece’s citizens a phone number to report other cases of suspected “larceny.”

Rochester’s demographics are similar to every big-city school district’s; only 12 percent of its students are white. Next door, in Greece, 83 percent of the students are white. In Rochester, 71 percent of students qualify for free lunch, the marker of poverty in public education. This makes Rochester the second-poorest school system in New York. By comparison, in Greece, 20 percent of the students are poor.

Greece educators had reportedly hired a private investigator and sent him after Hill and other urban parents who’d done the same thing. The taxpayer-supported sleuth will continue to trail mothers and fathers suspected of trying to cross the line and “steal” from the town, according to press reports.

Greece and Rochester spend similar amounts per pupil–some $12,000 vs. $14,000 in 2006. And both districts, like other communities, face budget problems. This is where similarities end. Rochester’s schools have all the features of overwhelmed social institutions, beset by extreme poverty, racial isolation and attendant low performance. Students in Rochester consistently score below the state average on achievement measures. Meanwhile, in Greece, 81 percent of fourth graders recently met the proficiency standards on state tests in math and 74 percent met them in English language arts, above the state average.

The schools reflect the inequalities outside them. The median home value in Greece is $123,658. In Rochester, just up the road, the median home value plummets to $69,100. More than a decade ago, a private marketing group analyzed impediments to fair housing in Monroe County, where Rochester and Greece are located. Not surprisingly, it found housing choices for racial minorities “severely” restricted. The vast majority of the county’s public and assisted housing–all but 100 of its 2,494 units–is in Rochester. The report concluded that “minorities experience mortgage denial rates which are from two to three times greater than those for White applicants. This disparity persists across all income levels.”

The taxpayers in Greece are paying their detective merely to watch urban parents do what middle-class people have been doing for generations: moving their kids to higher-performing, less chaotic, less challenged schools. The key difference here is that people of color are restricted from making such moves. Through government incentives that encouraged suburban growth and fueled urban decline, we set the stage for Yolanda Hill’s alleged larceny many decades before she was born.

Late last year the bipartisan Fair Housing commission, chaired by Democrat Henry Cisneros and Republican Jack Kemp, convened hearings across the nation. It concluded: “past and ongoing discriminatory practices in the nation’s housing and lending markets continue to produce levels of residential segregation that result in significant disparities between minority and non-minority households, in access to good jobs, quality education, homeownership attainment and asset accumulation.”

President Obama bravely made “tackling concentrated poverty” part of his campaign. He also made it OK to talk out loud about the incontrovertible fact that poverty, in extreme and concentrated levels, overwhelms parents and educators and misshapes a child’s life trajectory. Disappointingly, the president devoted much of his recent speech on education to distracting, hot-button schemes–merit pay for teachers, charter schools. The worth of such policies aside, Obama lost an opportunity to focus a harsh light on inequality and a flattering one on small efforts that cross race and class chasms.

More than four decades ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, suburban educators and school board members in West Irondequoit and other affluent, white Rochester suburbs took the opposite course from their neighbor Greece. They initiated a small transfer program with Rochester by which students of color could voluntarily attend suburban schools. The small but popular program, not without its challenges, survives. Seven suburban school districts participate. Similar programs operate in St. Louis, Boston, Hartford and Minneapolis. State legislators in Nebraska crafted an innovative plan to bring suburban and urban school districts into a “learning community” that allows students to cross district lines and that promotes integration.

These programs cannot reach everyone and are not necessarily the best route for every child. And “desegregation” is simply off the table in most cities. Thankfully, though, we have entered the fact-based era, and we can act on the knowledge that concentrated poverty and racial isolation contribute to the achievement gap. In this new space, we can build on and replicate educational models that value connection over division and incorporation over separation. To begin, a collective attack on poverty’s symptoms–health problems, incarcerated parents, grandparents raising children, exposure to neighborhood violence, the list goes on–offers a promising approach to education policy.

Meanwhile, that private detective at the suburban border, eyes alert for urban escapees, his handcuffs at the ready, is an image most unbecoming to us all. It belongs to a past we’d do best to leave behind. Susan Eaton

Susan Eaton, research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, is the author, most recently, of The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial.