Kelley Williams-Bolar lives in subsidized public housing with her two daughters in Akron, Ohio. Her father lives in the nearby suburb of Copley. In Akron, the schools are barely scraping by in meeting basic state standards. In Copley, the schools receive an “excellent with distinction” rating from the state.
Ms. Williams-Bolar made the kind of decision many of us might when faced with how to educate her children: she used her father’s address to get them into the good school district.
But the district hired a private investigator to follow her home and find evidence of what she was doing. After two years in the Copley schools, her daughters were ousted and Williams-Bolar was arrested. Last week, she and her father were both convicted of felonies. For “defrauding the school district” Williams-Bolar was sentenced to five years in jail, all but ten days of which were suspended. She’s been in jail for a few days now. I haven’t seen a report on where her children are while they wait for her to get home.
A felony means three things I can think of right away:
- It means that Kelley Williams-Bolar can’t get the teaching certification she was studying for in order to build a career for herself and get her kids out of poverty.
- It means that when she does apply for whatever job she can find in this rotten economy, she’ll have to check the “convicted felon” box on the application. Given the unemployment numbers these days, it’s doubtful she’ll be getting her girls out of that subsidized housing anytime soon.
- It means she can no longer vote. She is utterly disenfranchised.
Of course, Kelley Williams-Bolar is a black woman. I think the likelihood that this kind of sentence would ever be handed out to a white parent doing something similar (and indeed, we all have a story of someone—of whatever race—doing something similar) is pretty slim.
But aside from the disproportionate sentencing based on race that is well-documented in legal scholarship, there’s another race matter here.
A couple of weeks ago, I had to explain to my older daughter why the picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover of her church bulletin featured a jail cell. "Sometimes, rules are bad rules. But when good people break bad rules, they still get in trouble. Dr. King broke some bad rules and they put him in jail."
Ironically, of course, so much of what the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was about was education. In fact, that’s what the children’s book I got for my kids highlights. It explains that when he was a child, “Martin” couldn’t go to the nice, new school for white children. He had to go to the old, broken-down, ill-supplied school for black children. The book goes on to explain how it all came out for the best in the end and now “anybody can go to any school.”
Poor Dr. King must be rolling in his grave. The majority of kids in that school in Akron that Kelley feared would intellectually hamper and even physically endanger her children is a majority poor, black school. The award winner in the suburbs is vastly majority white in a neighborhood where the average income is slightly above the national average.
The way the public schools in the United States are funded—based on neighborhood taxes—maintains a separate and wildly unequal system for children based officially on class and secondarily, by the association between poverty and minority, on race.
Something’s gotta give—something other than the single, poor, black mothers who already give until their backs are broken, trying to protect and educate and give a leg up to their children.
Like Dr. King, Kelley William-Bolar went to jail for breaking a bad rule. Or, as I said to a friend today, she broke an unjust law in the cause of justice. It’s how civil rights movements work. She may have only been trying to help her daughters, but she could be a call to all of us to demand reforms to a broken public education system.
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