What's missing from the "Akron mom" conversation

In today's Ohio Education Gadfly, Jamie, Bianca, and I explore what's missing from the debate around Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Akron mom who was jailed for nine days and convicted of tampering with documents in order to send her two children to a school outside their home district.

Many are calling it a ???Rosa Parks moment for education.??? Civil rights and political activists are pleading with the governor to pardon Williams-Bolar (and he has asked the Ohio Parole Board to review the case). Kevin Huffman noted in the Washington Post, ???She looked at her options, she looked at the law, she looked at her kids. And she made a choice.???

But did she really look at all of her options? Lost among the clarion calls for expanding school choice to help parents like Ms. Williams-Bolar are key questions. Besides falsifying documents to send her kids outside of Akron Public Schools, did Williams-Bolar have other options? If so, why didn't she use them?

In fact, Williams-Bolar did have legal school-choice options, more than most Ohio families, including:

Intra-district transfer. The Akron Public Schools allows students to attend a school other than their local neighborhood school provided a seat is available. There are several high-performing schools in Akron, one of which we featured in our Needles in a Haystack report last spring (King Elementary, which drew a hefty percentage of its students from outside its attendance zone), that her kids might have attended. There are also two very good magnet schools in Akron: the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, Center for STEM and Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Charter schools. Akron is not the hot-bed of charters that other Ohio cities are, nor are its charter schools (there are eleven of them) as high-performing as ones found in Cleveland and Columbus. But Williams-Bolar had the option to send her children to charter schools, including two of the better ones, Schnee Learning Center and Hope Academy Brown Street Campus ??? both rated ???B??? by the state.

Inter-district open enrollment. Ohio requires each school district to adopt an out-of-district open enrollment policy that details whether a district will accept students tuition-free who live outside its borders. In Summit County, where Akron is located, eleven districts outside of the Akron Public Schools would have accepted Williams-Bolar's children via tuition-free open enrollment. This includes eight that have high academic ratings.

EdChoice Scholarship (voucher). The Akron district schools that Williams-Bolar's children were assigned to had been poor-performing long enough that for at least half of the period during which she sent her children to the suburban school illegally, they were eligible to apply for the EdChoice Scholarship program to attend a private school in the Akron area.

[pullquote]Simply creating more choice pathways alone isn't enough, and the failure of commentators, politicians, and education reformers to acknowledge this reality when discussing Williams-Bolar's case is disingenuous.[/pullquote]

Of course all of these choices are imperfect. For example, most EdChoice recipient schools are non-secular schools, and perhaps Williams-Bolar wanted her children to attend school in a secular institution. And enrolling in choice programs ??? whether charter, district magnet, or voucher ??? takes hard work, patience, and possibly endurance (if there are waiting lists at the receiving schools).

Certainly it's a call to arms when low-income families have to work harder than the rest of us in order to secure excellent education options for their kids. But simply creating more choice pathways alone isn't enough, and the failure of commentators, politicians, and education reformers to acknowledge this reality when discussing Williams-Bolar's case is disingenuous.

Williams-Bolar had legal school options for her kids, but she chose not to use them, either because she wasn't aware of them or simply didn't prefer them. Even more discouraging is the fact that academic performance was not the primary reason she pulled her kids from the Akron Public Schools. Her primary concern was safety. While she has become a poster child for school choice and the plight of urban families trapped in chronically failing schools, Williams-Bolar herself wasn't fleeing her home district because of its weak academic performance.

Fordham has long been an advocate for school choice options for all families ??? especially those trapped in failing schools. But as Checker, Terry, and Mike Lafferty chronicled in book form last summer, school choice theory is imperfect. Parents lack full information and often don't exercise their ability to choose, and even when they do make a conscious choice to switch schools ??? they often do it without regard to academics.

Williams-Bolar's situation alone doesn't show the need for expanding school choice in Ohio. Rather, her case shows the need to better educate parents and families about their educational options (much like what School Choice Ohio does in spreading the word about Ohio's EdChoice Scholarship and other choice programs); to help parents understand the vital importance of making schooling decisions based at least in large part on academics; and to maintain and strengthen accountability systems that will ensure that all available school choice options are decent ones.

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