Jail time for sneaking kids into a better school: Was justice served?
The case of an Ohio woman who lied so her girls could attend a better school triggers a sharp debate about equity in public education.
Would you go to jail to give your children a better education? How about falsifying documents? Would you claim your kids live with a grandparent so they could attend an elite – but still public – suburban school?Skip to next paragraph
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And how would you feel about someone who did?
The case of Kelley Williams-Bolar – who served nine days in jail for falsifying documents to enroll her children in a wealthier and safer school district – has sparked more reactions than a Rorschach test.
Supporters are outraged that an Ohio county prosecuted and convicted this low-income single mom, whom some see as a modern-day Rosa Parks, challenging an unfair system through a type of civil disobedience.
School-choice advocates want to make her their poster mom.
Critics see her as a poor role model, repeatedly lying and "stealing" an education from a district where she didn't pay taxes.
The case has tapped into debates about educational equity, as schools are funded largely through widely varying local tax bases, says Piet Van Lier, an education researcher at Policy Matters Ohio in Cleveland.
For Ms. Williams-Bolar's sup-porters, the punishment doesn't fit the crime. "We see it as a grave injustice that she was prosecuted and convicted of two felonies which could destroy her life, for what at most should have been a civil court dispute," says David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center in Cincinnati, which is providing legal counsel for a possible appeal.
Williams-Bolar has said safety, not academic quality, motivated her to enroll her daughters, now 12 and 16, in Copley-Fairlawn City Schools from 2006 to 2008. Her publicly subsidized home nearby in Akron had been burglarized, and not wanting her children to be "latchkey kids in a dangerous neighborhood, ... she took them to her father's house [in Copley-Fairlawn], where he pays taxes," Mr. Singleton says. "She maintains that her daughters were legitimately residents of the district."
On Feb. 7, a 165,000- signature petition was delivered to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, urging him to pardon Williams-Bolar. The governor then asked the state parole board to review the case.
In Copley-Fairlawn, the property-tax value per student is more than twice Akron's, Mr. Van Lier says. The district meets all 26 state quality indicators; Akron schools meet four. The graduation rate is nearly 98 percent, compared with 76 percent in Akron.
Copley-Fairlawn school officials valued the educational services provided to Williams-Bolar's daughters over two school years at $30,500.
Of 48 incidents of improper enrollment that the district has pursued since 2005, all but the Williams-Bolar case were resolved through cooperation of the families, said Ohio's Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh in a statement.
The felony charges arose from conflicting paperwork that Williams-Bolar filed – with public agencies and the school – about her daughters' residence and her income, according to the prosecutor. "She repeatedly and willfully broke the law," and despite having options to work with the district before the situation rose to a criminal level, "she refused to cooperate," Ms. Walsh noted in her statement.
Many local parents and other Copley-Fairlawn residents "were angry because ... they felt she had used their tax money under false pretenses," says Ed Esposito, news director for Rubber City Radio Group, describing comments received by his group's radio stations and websites.