What's not being said in the Williams-Bolar case

There’s
been vast media
coverage
of the Akron mom who went to jail for nine days after being convicted
of sending her two children to a school outside their attendance boundary.

Some have
called it a “Rosa Parks
moment for education
” as Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African American
mom merely trying to get her kids into a better school, was convicted of two
felony counts of tampering with records. Many in the education reform community
see Williams-Bolar as a poster child for school choice – she is the
quintessential urban, minority, single mom whose kids are trapped in failing
schools. As 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.” Would any one of us have acted any differently?

Still
others, including Gov. Kasich, mostly
just can’t believe that her deeds warrant two felony convictions. They argue
that the case should have been tried as a civil matter, not a criminal one. With two
felonies on her record, Williams-Bolar risks losing her job as a teaching
assistant to special needs kids and can’t become a teacher herself, which was
her dream. Political activist groups are pleading with the governor to pardon her. and he's agreed to have the parole board review her case.

Missing
from the coverage, and lost among the clarion calls for expanding school
choice, are several questions worth asking. Besides falsifying documents and
sending her kids outside of Akron Public Schools, did Williams-Bolar have other
options? What were her choices?

Other than
sending her kids to her neighborhood school in the Akron Public School
District, she had at least four other school choice options:

Intra-district open enrollment. In Akron,
families are assigned to schools based on where they reside but the district
allows intra-district open enrollment (transferring from one school building to
another, in the same district). Acceptance depends on space at the schools and
requires some paperwork, but she could have utilized this option (and given the
number of documents she falsified to put her kids into the Copley-Fairlawn
district, it would have required less work). There are several high-performing
schools in Akron, one of which we featured in our Needles in a Haystack report
last spring (King Elementary), that her kids might have attended. There are
also two very good magnet schools in Akron that Williams-Bolar could have
utilized: the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, Center for STEM – rated
Excellent, and Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts – rated
Excellent with Distinction.

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. Statewide, 149 districts do not allow students to
enroll for free from other districts (Copley-Fairlawn is one of them), 95
districts allow students from adjacent districts only to enroll, and 419
districts allow students from anywhere in the state to attend their schools
without paying tuition. (State funding follows open-enrollment students to the
district of their choice, much the same way funding follows charter school students.)
In Summit County, eleven districts would have accepted Williams-Bolar’s
children via tuition-free open enrollment.

EdChoice Scholarship (voucher). Based on
reports of where Williams-Bolar lives, we know that her children would
have been
assigned to Schumacher Academy
(elementary) or Perkins Middle School. Both of these district schools
were on
the list of voucher-eligible schools for at least half of the period
during which she sent them out of bounds. Williams-Bolar was
eligible to apply for the EdChoice Scholarship program and send her
children to
a private school of her choosing in the Akron area. 

Charter Schools. Among the
myriad of school choice options, Williams-Bolar also had the option to send her
children to charter schools. In Akron there are eleven charter schools. While
the majority of charter schools in Akron are not as high-performing as the
district’s schools, among the better ones are Schnee Learning Center and Hope
Academy Brown Street Campus – both rated Effective.  Both could have been options for
Williams-Bolar.

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 magnets, or voucher – takes hard work, patience, and possibly
endurance (if there are waiting lists at the receiving schools).

 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
disingenous.
 
   
 

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. The uproar
over this case illustrates widespread public agreement about that. 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 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’s an excellent 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
been a long-time advocate for school choice options for all families – especially
those trapped in failing schools. But as Checker, Terry and Mike Lafferty chronicled
in their book
Ohio’s Education Reform
Challenges: Lessons from the frontlines
, 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 necessarily show the need for expanding school choice
in Ohio.  After all, she had many
school-choice options available to her (and in fact more than most families). 
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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