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.

Karen Schiely/Akro n Beacon Journal/AP/File
Kelley Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail, with three years of probation and community service. She was found guilty in Akron, Ohio, on Jan. 18 of two third-degree felonies for having her children attend school in a city in which she did not live.

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?

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.

Many school districts enforce residency requirements, even setting up tip lines and hiring investigators. In 2009, a Rochester, N.Y., woman was sentenced to three years' probation after falsely stating that her children lived with their grandmother in the nearby Greece school district.

School districts have more than financial reasons to limit their offerings to students within their borders, says Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association. Safety issues make it important to know a child's true residency and guardian.

But those who see the case as a civil rights rallying point say the whole system is deeply flawed when the quality of public schools varies as sharply as it does in places like Akron and Copley-Fairlawn. The Rev. Al Sharpton visited Akron Feb. 17 for a Rally for Justice for Kelley Williams-Bolar, sponsored by his civil rights group, National Action Network.

The idea of sending a person to jail for "stealing a good education" for her child is "absurd," says John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. "In our society, where education is the bedrock of our democracy – where it's not provided [equally, that's] the crime."

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled several times that the way the state funds education is unconstitutional because some districts are impoverished and unable to meet state standards, but the legislature has done nothing significant to change it, Professor Powell says.

Ohio has an open-enrollment law in which students can attend schools in other districts – if the districts allow it, which Copley-Fairlawn does not. Such open-enrollment policies are "basically meaningless because the districts that parents would want to get into almost always opt out," says Michael Petrilli, an education policy expert at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

As long as schools are largely funded and controlled locally, these patterns will be tough to change, he says. About 2,800 American schools have 5 percent or less of their students from low-income families, according to a 2010 Fordham report that dubbed them "private public schools" because in some ways they are more exclusive than costly private schools.

Some studies suggest that low-income students benefit more from mixing with larger populations of middle- and upper-income peers than from increased funding alone.

In Montgomery County, Md., for instance, public-housing residents did better academically in schools with low concentrations of poverty – cutting their achievement gap in half over five to seven years – than in schools that received more money but had more poverty, says Heather Schwartz, a researcher at the RAND Corp.

Other districts have tried mixing income levels in school-assignment policies, or creating magnet schools with programs designed to attract students from various neighborhoods.

"We've got to think about society as a whole, and it is in our self-interest [to] have a funding system and a school system that's going to work for everybody," says Van Lier.

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