Last week’s buzz over a mother who was jailed for sending her children to a safer, better school appears to have lost some steam in the media. In fact, yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post, attempted to deflate the story a little further by pointing out that this was no “Rosa Parks moment” for education. However, what happened to Kelley Williams-Bolar should continue to speak directly to an education reform movement that is increasingly supportive of privatizing schools and turning the funding process for low-income schools into a cut-throat, winner-take-all competition.
An Ohio court convicted Williams-Bolar of a double felony for falsifying her residency records so that her two daughters could attend school in the Copley-Fairlawn public school district between 2006 and 2008. The district demanded that Williams-Bolar pay over $30,000 in back tuition and ultimately prosecuted her after a district-hired private detective followed and filmed her picking up her children after school and driving them to her real residence in Akron.
Williams-Bolar served ten days in jail (reduced from a sentence of five years) and will be on probation for the next two years. Prosecutors in the case refused to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor and the judge in the case indicated that she hoped the sentence would make an example of Williams-Bolar and serve as a deterrent to other parents.
Lawyers for the Copley-Fairlawn school district earlier argued that because school quality is a function of adequate funding and, as funding is determined by local property taxes, Williams-Bolar had committed grand theft. This charge was ultimately dropped, but it demonstrates the intractable madness of a public school system funded by property tax dollars.
Further, one of the prosecutors in the case predictably argued that: “There are many single mothers and families in similar situations who want the best for their children who are not breaking the law." Translation: “The law’s the law because it’s the law.” Glad we cleared that up.
An Unjust Law in an Unjust System
Yes, Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law, but this is an unjust law that upholds an unjust situation. Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law in a state of a nation that tacitly accepts that even a basic quality education is a privilege that can be enjoyed by some and denied to others on the basis of their zip code or income or race. If you live in a nice, affluent suburb, the sky’s the limit for your kids’ education and we’ll prosecute anyone who tries to steal it from them. If you live elsewhere, well… let’s hope your district gets its act together in that next round of Race to the Top.
Kelley Williams-Bolar broke an unjust law to overcome an unjust situation and, in doing so, she did exactly the right thing. It’s sadly ironic that Williams-Bolar is herself en route to certification as a teacher. While this unjust and excessive conviction now jeopardizes that career for her, we can’t let her story become just another banal “teachable moment” that shakes heads and peppers Twitter feeds, only to be forgotten by the national media by week's end.
Instead, we must remember that any system that imprisons a mother for simply enrolling her child in a public school, whatever the circumstances, is fundamentally unjust. We must also remember what Henry David Thoreau wrote about institutionalized injustice in America over 150 years ago: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”