Kelley Williams-Bolar, an aspiring teacher and mother of two in Ohio, spent nine days in jail earlier this year and was placed on three years’ probation after a felony conviction for falsifying official documents. The basis of her offense? Sending her children to school in a district in which they did not live.
The Akron mother’s saga began four years ago when she registered her daughters for school using her father’s address in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn school district. She says she didn’t want her children to stay home alone after school, especially after her apartment was burglarized. “When my home got broken into, I felt it was my duty to do something else,” she told the news media.
In all, the Copley-Fairlawn school district calculated that the family defrauded it of $30,000. Apparently, in Ohio, public education is no longer a right — it is now a form of private property that can be stolen. Jail time was not enough. Williams-Bolar, who had been pursuing a degree at the University of Akron, also now may have to find a new career path. Under Ohio law, Williams-Bolar’s two third-degree felony convictions may preclude her from teaching. Williams-Bolar’s attorneys are preparing an appeal.
News of Williams-Bolar’s conviction and punishment has been met with outrage and activism among people who can relate to a mother’s quest to do what’s best for her children. Celebrities including actor Danny Glover and musician Questlove spoke out in support of Williams-Bolar on social media outlets Twitter and Tumblr. Activist organizations Change.org, ColorofChange.org and MomsRising.org submitted to Ohio Gov. John Kasich a 165,000-signature petition urging him to pardon Williams-Bolar. While Williams-Bolar says she did not have a problem with Akron Public Schools, the case has called attention to the dilemma faced by low-income parents unwilling to send their children to neighborhood schools. Countless parents have done exactly what Williams-Bolar did. Kasich, who has asked the Ohio Parole Board to review the case and advise him as to whether her sentence is appropriate, is using the case to advocate for open enrollment and other school reforms.
Clearly, the court is making an example out of Williams-Bolar. Prosecutors said “punishment or deterrent was needed for other individuals who might think to defraud the various school districts.” Of course, it’s easiest to make an example out of someone when she does not have the resources to fight back; Williams-Bolar is a single mother who struggles to make ends meet. This sentence practically guarantees that the social and economic circumstances that drove Williams-Bolar to action will not be resolved. Indeed, it also effectively robs her of the opportunity to pull herself up “by the bootstraps,” potentially handing down a life sentence of poverty and underemployment.
The court’s sharp focus on Williams-Bolar also allows it to ignore the historical and legal inequalities that created this problem in the first place. As President Barack Obama mentioned in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, “we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, a frightening trend of re-segregation is growing throughout the country. The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles reported in 2009 that 39 percent of African-Americans and 40 percent of Hispanic students attend intensely segregated schools, where 90 to 100 percent of the student body is non-White. Recently, a majority-Republican school board in North Carolina, backed by the national Tea Party, made efforts to sequester poorer students into a few schools by allowing children to attend only their neighborhood school. The trend damages the prospects for non-White students, who are overrepresented in poorer school districts.
Speaking as an educator, the punitive destruction of Williams-Bolar’s teaching future is really the most outrageous offense. It’s the latest in a long line of abuses against educators, including furloughs, layoffs, contract changes and anti-union organizing. In his recent State of the Union address, we heard President Obama talk about the need for people who recognize the importance of education to become teachers. He said: “Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.’ Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”
The president pleaded on behalf of the teaching profession and focused on the importance of education as the right of every citizen. If nothing else, this case makes clear that Williams-Bolar understands the power of education in creating a brighter future, so much so that she was pro-active on behalf of her daughters and intended to repay the state by becoming a teacher herself. Will the state of Ohio disagree?
— Dr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins is an award-winning writer and scholar at Brown University. A version of this column was originally published on www.Truthdig.com.