Kevin Huffman: 'A Rosa Parks moment for education'

Feb 01, 2011

Opinion writer Kevin Huffman will be online Tuesday, Feb. 1, at noon to chat about his latest column "'A Rosa Parks moment for education,'" in which he writes, "Kelly Williams-Bolar has become a cause célèbre in a case that crosses traditional ideological bounds. African American activists are outraged, asking: Would a white mother face the same punishment for trying to get her kids a better education? (Answer: No.) ." Chat about him with this and more - ask your questions now.

Hi everyone. Thanks so much for joining. I'm excited to talk about both Kelley Williams-Bolar but also, more specifically, the issues highlighted by her case. Let's get going!

Lying about your address is a felony? Are you kidding me? I just watched a news story where a mother charged with child abuse is facing a misdemeanor!! I know this is a chat about education, but seriously - we have a real problem with the legal system here.

This is a common sentiment - that even if she broke the law, charging her with a felony and throwing her in jail is excessive.

Since these chats are anonymous, I have spent over 50 years trying to get the best education possible for my many children and grandchildren. Some were able to go to Catholic schools, before these, too, became out of reach for many parents. I got/get them mentors and tutors and access to computers. And yes, I did at times send them to PG or Montgomerry Counties where schools were thought to be better. However, I always arranged for them to actually live with a friend or relative so I would not find myself in Ms. Williams-Bolar's situation.

I want to jump right on this one - and thanks for the honesty.

I have been blown away - truly stunned - by the number of people who emailed me to say, "My family/friend/neighbor did this." Low-income people, middle-class people, upper-income people.

This is happening everywhere, all the time. Much more than anyone realizes.

Your headline is deliberately misleading. The mother was not punished for trying to get her kid a better education. She was punished for lying about the kid's resident status. Can't you see the difference? Why do you attempt to obfuscate the facts?

Ah, but this is the crux of the issue right? I don't blame the jury in this case. The law says what it says.

But why did she break the law? It wasn't because she just felt like lying. It was because the schools were better on the other side of the tracks. I don't think that's an obfuscation.

That to compare this to Rosa Parks is insulting to the civil rights movement, these types of actions exculpate individuals from their responsibility to their community, and to the education of those in their community. Why not go to jail? when you are basically stealing something, even if it is a communities resources.

Two pieces to this question:

1) The Rosa Parks analogy.  I didn't make the analogy, I noted that others have. Many people, across the spectrum. My own view is that the situations aren't sufficiently analogous (big difference between lying in order to help your own family, and shining an intentional spotlight on a social injustice for the broader good).

2) I find that people making the "personal responsibility" argument aren't sending their kids to terrible schools.  I had a lot of emails from folks arguing that what she should have done was engage more in her school and make it better. That's a pretty good argument. But I don't think it's crazy to decide that's a failed strategy that will leave your kids exposed to a bad education.

I'm torn. I completely agree that this mother's punishment was too severe. AND, as a parent, I completely get why she did what she did. As a progressive community planner, I think school funding needs to be determined by a means other than local property taxes. My problem is this -- if what she did is okay, then EVERY SINGLE parent in this county would be doing it. Every single one. My kid's school system is okay - but not great. I'd love to utilize the one just to the north of us. What parent wouldn't want some slight change? Where does this end? When is it okay?

Yep. I think this is a great articulation of the conundrum.

First of all, it turns out that a lot of people are already doing this.

Second, though, you could make the argument that if everyone did start doing this, maybe we would be forced to directly confront what I referred to as a Jim Crow education system. It's easy for us to not confront it when it's only the powerless who are impacted.

But I agree - this is what makes this case such an interesting window into the broader issue.

Thanks for your fine pieces in the POST. Long term, the solution would seem to be rethinking the notion of local school districts, with many districts in a small area. Changing that seems very difficult. But would it be possible to have reciprocity among districts, with the tax support from district A going to District B with each student who crosses boundaries? I know this happens with some state university systems. I believe Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota have this. Ohio Dad

This is an interesting thought. Some people believe that the money (in a state) should tag to the child, and the child can carry the money to whichever district. Of course, the reality is that kids would flock to districts that lack capacity to handle them. But again - something needs to happen to jar people into facing the reality that we have a multi-tiered education system right now.

What's the chance that the Ohio governor will grant Ms. Williams-Bolar a pardon? Granted she falsified paperwork, but this seems like a small thing compared to the burden of having to declare a felony on her record for the rest of her life.

I'm not sure. There are petitions in circulation, but I don't know how Gov. Kasich feels about this. (Incidentally he was my Congressman when I was growing up in Ohio). I hope he considers it.

No. Really she faked 60 documents, her driver's license, a W2, voter's registration, telling C-F she was deploted overseas, among other things. Can you all in the National Press please make this known if you're going to cover the story?

I've had a number of emails along these lines, noting that Williams-Bolar has less than clean hands. The Akron Beacon Journal has done some good reporting on this (and for those of you who have asked, yes I have read those stories!).

Incidentally, this is another reason that the Rosa Parks analogy makes me uncomfortable. Parks, of course, led the charge in part because she had such strong character and background that she was hard to attack.

Ultimately, this story for me isn't about whether Williams-Bolar is a good person outside of this particular realm. It's a broader question about educational equity in America and how it impacts individual parents.

But I think perfectly reasonable to flag these things.

Our elementary school was getting incredibly crowded, because so many people were sending their kids there - because it's one of the few in the city of Atlanta that is a very good school. They started cracking down on it due to the overcrowding, and all the teachers and many parents supposedly knew which kids were in/out of district - but really? throwing a mom in jail? It's crazy (and since one county lost accreditation down here, our high schools have gotten more out of district kids - not all of them transferred legally either...but again...throwing someone in jail? jeez).

Thanks. In the Akron case, she was out of district which meant that she was using resources that other people were paying for. But the in-district version of this happens all the time too.

X school is great. It is, ostensibly, an "open enrollment" school for kids in the district. Because it has a finite number of spots, it becomes impossible to get in. So people start lying and otherwise gaming the system. It's not shifting tax dollars, but it's still lying on paperwork, and it's rampant.

Kevin, I think you are a hero for children for writing this article--thank you. My mother had to "lie" to my high school and registered me as living with a friend in a neighborhood where the high school was better than the school I was "zoned" to attend. If my mother had not done this, I would have had a very different path in life ---I know this because other family members went to my zoned school and they did not complete college and are struggling right now to make it in this economy. I did attend and graduate from college because of the culture of the high school I attended--99% of my peers went to 4-year colleges. My question to you Kevin is how can we work to ensure that mothers like mine who just want the best for their children are not criminals? How do we change the laws the way civil rights activists changed laws that were clearly not just.

Thanks for the kind words!

The first step is ensuring that the right to a good education is viewed by the mainstream as a fundamental civil right. There are still a lot of people who are perfectly comfortable with education quality tying to neighborhood quality, as if it is an earned right.

The policy questions are so complex. But there are certainly inequities around funding and use of property tax dollars. Beyond that, though, we need to be more open to radical changes to schools that are failing. too often, it seems that people assail the potential changes without adequately recognizing that the status quo is completely unacceptable. 

I know that's simplistic and ducks the harder questions, but it's a good start.

This is a serious question. Given the budget situation and just the facts of life, there are always going to be good schools and not-so-good schools (hopefully we can eliminate the truly abyssmal ones), and some students are, unfortunately, going to have to attend the latter.

The whole "there will be poor people always" point doesn't resonate with me, mainly because these are children we are talking about. Even if you buy into a more radical view of you-reap-what-you-sow capitalism, when you are talking about kids, it's not good enough to throw our hands up.

That said, I agree that there will always be some schools that are better than others. But there is a level of acceptable compared with utterly unacceptable. I agree that eliminating the abyssmal is a good starting point. And then ensuring that there is the freedom for political leaders etc. to take more radical action to ensure that the less-good schools are on the path to improvement.

 

Why didn't she pay? When my sister-in-law lived with us, she used her SS money to pay to attend a high school in another county.

I assume she didn't have the money (I think she owed on the order of 30,000 for the "tuition").

Since the most important element in a student's education is parental involvement, wouldn't the schools be better if all these concerned parents kept their children in the right schools?

This is, in my view, the highly theoretical argument against school choice. The question is how much impact you, as a soletary parent, can have.

I think we would all like to think that what WE would do is rally the community and get everyone else involved and just turn that school around doggone it. But parents feel pretty powerless in the face of school bureaucracies.

And I've been saying for years...I have school choice, many people have school choice. Those that *don't* have school choice are the lowest income, least educated parents, etc. How can one deny *those kids* school choice? It's absurd.

That's my view too. I'm a lifelong Democrat and the party hasn't been strong, historically, on this issue (Obama and Duncan are strong on it though).

But everyone I know in upper middle class America is picking their home based partially on school quality. It's de facto school choice. We just deny it to people without resources.

Doesn't matter. If my kids are hungry does it give me the right to steal food? This is all just justifying illegal behavior.

This is not self-evident to me. Do you believe that if there is a law/rule, ergo you must follow it?

Obviously we can't have anarchy. But you know what: if my kids were starving, I would steal to feed them if I felt I had no other recourse. Sorry if that makes me a bad person.

Whether this situation is analogous is a different and more complicated question.

Ms. Williams-Bolar had followed the rules, stayed in her district (banging her head against the wall it sounds like), and hoping that her kid came out okay? Probably not. But now people are talking. There's no such thing as bad press, right? I think when a parent is put into a corner, damned if she does (kid never succeeds) and damned if she doesn't (gets busted for sneaking her kid into a good school), they'll always opt for the choice that is best for their children. Shedding light on the terrible choice is a good think, in my opinion.

Thanks for this point.

Parents, by the millions, follow the rules, have bad results that play out in reduced life choices for their kids, and it doesn't lead to sufficient change.

 

With all do respect to the poster, it is not. It is another example of how laws are applied differently to African American as opposed to others (in this case Caucasians), making it a perfect comparison.

Thanks for this point.

Of all the dozens of emails I got telling me personal stories of parents lying on enrollment forms, not one ended with, "And then my mom went to jail."

One of the things that makes a great school, and a great education is parental involvement. How does rearranging the student population help with this aspect? The further away from home the students are, the less likely the parents will be able to volunteer, which drags the whole school environment down.

Theoretical. And I don't think the logic holds. So, the parent who makes the most effort to get kids to and from a school that is the farthest away won't volunteer?

She filed false paperwork to the courts. I'm sorry so many people have such little regard for integrity.

Let's start building more jails then. But this time, let's start out in the suburbs with parents making six-figures and lying in order to game into a better magnet school.

Certainly not jail, but it would be pandemonium if parents could pick which public schools their children could attend. In these times of decreasing resources, I fear it will only get worse.

Thanks - and think this is what the system was thinking in going after parents in Akron.

Right now, though, it's a quiet pandemonium. We are taking an entire segment of the population and quietly ensuring that they won't graduate from college and won't have an equal chance in life.

$30,000 for her kids' tuition, how much does the school those kids should have gone to "owe" her - just of out curiosity? And is the felony charge because of the money or the paper falsification?

Good questions. I think - and this is where I may fall down on the legal piece - that the jury hung on a grand theft charge which was the money piece. They convicted on the charge of falsifying the papers.

I love the idea that Akron should pay her for the money they didn't spend on her kids. That is a fascinating logical twist.

Has anyone calculated what it will cost to prosecute her and send her to prison and keep her there versus what it would cost to send her child to a good school? This is where law and economics meet. Also, I would posit that, yes, we can send her to prison because she technically broke the law. But is that justice? Is it merciful? This is the reason we have juries, so that the law can be tempered with mercy.

This is a good question too.

I don't necessarily blame the jury here. If you have been on a jury, you know that it's hard to really nullify. (And to the ranter out there - no I am not publishing your diatribe - but it is true that the jury was a mixed race jury so I don't think they were out to get her). I think mercy is important, though, particularly for the prosecutors.

This isn't fair. It was already mentioned that she lived in poor subsidized housing and was putting herself through school to become a teacher. She undoubtedly also works to put food on their table. And she's a single parent of more than one child. So, where is she supposed to have the time to participate in her school? This is another part of the dilemma. People of better means often have more time for things other than subsistence. People with better means often choose what their activities outside of work are. People below the poverty level have no choice. They work when they can work, sometimes multiple jobs, and try to put themselves through school on the side to get themselves out of their current situation. And often have no choices or options to participate in anything else.

yep and just from my own personal experience teaching low-income kids, the parents cared A LOT and when they didn't come or volunteer, it was generally because they were holding down a second job, lacked transportation and time etc.

Thanks for this article. I've been following the case myself. If anything, this seems to be proof that we do still have school segregation; clearly, there are better schools for rich whites, and not so great schools for poor minorities, but we have to pretend that they are "equal."

I will end with this one.

This is the reality. We have a separate school system for poor kids, who are often African American or Latino. This school system produces results that upper class parents would not accept for their own children.

To end with a sense of optimism, there are far more GREAT schools serving low-income kids than there were 20 years ago. We have far more examples of excellent results, which shine a spotlight on the less than excellent results and create an imperative for change. Lots of good things are happening - but we need scale.

 

Thanks so much for the very thoughtful questions and comments. I really appreciate the forum and the engagement over the last couple of days.

In This Chat
Kevin Huffman
Kevin Huffman was the winner of the Post’s inaugural America’s Next Great Pundit contest. He writes regularly for Post Partisan, and on his own blog.

Huffman is the executive vice president of public affairs at Teach For America, where he has served as a senior manager for nearly 10 years. A native of Ohio, he practiced education law in Washington D.C. and was a bilingual first grade teacher in Texas before joining Teach For America's staff.
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