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.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.