Ohio stomps on American dream of education

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(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—I had a friend in high-school named “Jen” who commuted 45 minutes to school each day from her house in Manassas to our school in Centreville, Va. Jen lived with her mother and stepdad, but her estranged father still allowed her to use his address for residency so she could go to high-school in Fairfax County. Fairfax had great public schools and offered more of the AP courses that “Jen” needed for college. Jen, like millions of upper class White kids and parents across America bend the rules of residency and location to create their own little ‘school choice programs’ every year with little or no consequence. No one ever investigated her or questioned her right to drive 45 minutes to school. Apparently the same blind eye and leniency isn’t reserved for poor Black folks, as Kelly Williams-Bolar of Akron Ohio has just found out.

Kelly Williams-Bolar is a single mother of two who just served nine days in jail for doing exactly what millions of parents like “Jen’s” do for their kids ever year. In 2006 Kelly Williams-Bolar decided that the lousy Akron schools and terrible public housing neighborhood that she could afford would not help her daughters out of poverty. So she used her father’s address to send her daughters to the much more successful Copley-Fairlawn school district where he resided. Around 2008 school district officials got ‘suspicious’ and spent $6,000 of taxpayer money on a private investigator who determined that Williams-Bolar’s girls lived with her, not their grandfather in the district. The single mother of two was then tried for DEFRAUDING the Copley-Fairlawn school district and charged over $30,000 in unpaid “tuition” rather than simply being forced to remove her children from the school or some other misdemeanor charge. When she was unable to pay judge Patricia Cosgrove sentenced her to 10 days in jail stating, “I felt that some punishment or deterrent was needed for other individuals who might think to defraud the various school districts.” In a sick ironic twist, Williams-Bolar worked as a teacher’s aide in Akron public schools and was only three classes away from a full teaching certificate. Now with a felony on her record she can never become a teacher in an Ohio public school.

Common sense dictates that this is a bizarre, cruel and likely racially and class motivated prosecution of someone who has committed a ‘crime’ that millions commit every year without such dire consequences. When you look at the specifics of Ohio public education the situation is even more disgusting. The Supreme Court of Ohio has ruled that the state education system’s funding and organization is unconstitutional four times in the last decade (1997, 2001, 2002, 2003) based on court cases filed by various groups in the state. This means that Williams-Bolar’s ‘crime’ was committed under an unconstitutional system, which should bring her entire conviction into question. To get even more policy specific, her father lives in the district and pays taxes so why didn’t that count towards his grandchildren’s ‘tuition’? If the school district is suggesting that only people with kids in the district pay school taxes then there are a lot of childless folks who should be getting a big tax refund this April.

Moreover, the racial component of this scenario is obvious, no one believes the district’s assiduous protection of its borders is based on fiduciary concerns; it’s just another form of racial gerrymandering in public education.  During an interview on National Public Radio’s Tell Me More program last week Copley-Fairlawn Superintendent Brian Poe admitted that of the 47 residency cases investigated in the last five years 29 of the families were African-American, 15 were White and three were Asian. So it is abundantly clear that Black families are being put under particular scrutiny for these rules violations. I’ll bet you $30,000 in ‘back tuition’ that if Kelly had a son who could play basketball like LeBron or was being eyed by Ohio State that rules would be bent for him to stay.

The larger political implications of this case cannot be ignored either. Concerned citizens across America should be ringing Ohio Congresswoman Betty Sutton’s phone night and day demanding that she step in and do something about this gross injustice. Every Republican pundit and think tank that has ever argued for school choice should be making Kelly Williams-Bolar a cause célèbre and offering to mount her legal appeal pro-bono. When a working mother is doing everything in her power to give her kids the American dream and she’s sent to jail for it, it’s time for all Americans of conscience to get involved.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)

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