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A mother in Akron, Ohio, was released from jail this week. She served nine days for lying in order to get her children into a better school system. The case has received national attention, and the controversy appears to be growing. The felony conviction of Kelley Williams-Bolar has stirred strong feelings over school funding, equality and the law.

Jeff St. Clair of member station WKSU reports.

JEFF ST. CLAIR: Two and a half years ago, Kelley Williams-Bolar was called to a meeting at a 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 Copley-Fairlawn School on the west side of Akron had hired an investigator who discovered Williams-Bolar and her daughters lived outside the district, in subsidized housing 2 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, but that was immediately reduced to only 10 days with time served.

Still, her reaction in the crowded Akron courtroom was heart-wrenching.

(Soundbite of crying)

Her minister, Lorenzo Green's reaction that day was more muted.

Mr. LORENZO GREEN: It's just sad. When I see the media here today, you would think it was a serial killing. It's all overwhelming.

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

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

Mr. MARCO SOMMERVILLE (President, Akron City Council): The young lady was wrong. She should not have tried to take her kids to another school system, should not have falsified any public information, but the fact that she did, we feel it strange that she got charged with a felony.

ST. CLAIR: 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.

Mr. DAN DOMENECH (Executive Director, American Association of School Administrators): The correlation between student achievement and zip code is 100 percent. You know, the quality of education that you receive is entirely predictable based on where you live.

ST. CLAIR: What Williams-Bolar did is not so unusual. Domenech estimates it's 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.

Mr. BRIAN POE (Superintendent, Copley-Fairlawn School District): Our district did everything we possibly could to work through the situation and resolve the situation.

ST. CLAIR: 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.

Mr. BOB DYER (Columnist, The Akron Beacon Journal): I pay a lot of money in property taxes, 53 percent of which goes to the schools, and I want that money to be paying for the people who live in my district.

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

Mr. KYLE OLSON: A lot of people are seeing this as the Rosa Parks moment for education and education reform.

ST. CLAIR: Public sentiment may largely be on her side. Prosecutors say all she needed to do was tell the truth, and that what Kelley Williams-Bolar did hurts other parents who follow the rules.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair.

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