Ohio Case: The 'Rosa Parks Moment' For Education?

fromWKSU

Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Akron, Ohio, woman who served nine days in jail for lying to get her children into a better school system, was released earlier this week.

But the controversy over the case appears to be growing. Williams-Bolar's felony conviction has stirred strong feelings over school funding, equality — and the law.

The Conviction

Two-and-a-half years ago, Williams-Bolar was called to a meeting at the middle school her two daughters attended. When she arrived, she faced school administrators and a school lawyer. The meeting didn't go well, turning into a shouting match.

The school in the Copley-Fairlawn district on the west side of Akron had hired an investigator who discovered that Williams-Bolar and her daughters lived outside the district, in subsidized housing two miles away in Akron. She claimed in affidavits that she and her daughters lived in Copley with her father.

This month, the 40-year-old single mom found herself in court, facing felony charges of tampering with records. She was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

That was immediately reduced to only 10 days with time served. Still, her blood-curdling scream in the crowded Akron courtroom was heart-wrenching.

Her minister, Lorenzo Green, had a more muted reaction that day.

"It's just sad, when I see all the media here today, it's all overwhelming," he said.

A Punishment That Doesn't Fit The Crime?

Williams-Bolar served nine days and is now free. Her felony conviction for falsifying records to attend a better school is a first in Ohio. She is still overwhelmed by the national attention her case is receiving and did not respond to interview requests.

There is no group that tracks prosecutions in cases where a parent games a system to send their kid to a better school.

But it's clear that the Akron, Ohio, case is quite unusual.

Francisco Negron Jr., associate executive director and general counsel at the National School Boards Association, says he's "not familiar with any cases that have gone this far."

Neither is author Jonathan Kozol, best known for his books on public education, including Savage Inequalities. He says the worst punishment he's ever heard of is making the children stay in the district they live in.

"I've never, ever heard of a judge who actually allowed a woman to be sent to jail as a punishment for doing the very best she can do for her children," Kozol says. "I think that's outrageous."

Erin Killian

But Akron City Council President Marco Sommerville has taken up her cause because, like many, he feels the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

"The young lady was wrong, she should not have tried to take her kids to another school system, should not have falsified any information, but we find it strange that she got charged with a felony," he says.

Sommerville and others across the country are asking what would prompt someone to risk so much to send her kids to a better school. Dan Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators says the answer is simple.

"The correlation between student achievement and zip code is 100 percent," he says. "The quality of education you receive is entirely predictable based on where you live."

And what Williams-Bolar did is not so unusual. Domenech estimates it is costing taxpayers nationwide tens of millions of dollars in districts that limit outside student enrollment.

Copley-Fairlawn Schools Superintendent Brian Poe says criminal charges were the final step after the family refused to pay the more than $30,000 tuition he says was owed the school.

"Our district did everything we possibly could to work through the situation and resolve the situation," he says.

Poe concedes that the response to the school's action has largely been as harsh as the judge's sentence.

"We've taken a lot of criticism," he says. "It's not a matter of picking and choosing students, it's a matter of educating students within our district according to Ohio law."

A Call For Education Reform

In Ohio and a number of other states, schools are funded primarily through local property taxes, which Williams-Bolar was not paying. Bob Dyer, who lives in Copley, shares the school's frustration that she was not paying to educate her daughters there.

"I pay a lot of money in property taxes, 53 percent of which go to the schools, and I want that money to go to people who live in the district," he says.

Conservative commentator Kyle Olson says this conviction highlights the need for changes in education.

"A lot of people are seeing this as the Rosa Parks moment for education and education reform," he says.

Though public sentiment may largely be on her side, prosecutors say all she needed to do was tell the truth — and that what Williams-Bolar did hurts other parents who follow the rules.

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