School Choice For Me, But Not For Thee
Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) did the right thing yesterday when he reduced the conviction and sentencing of an Akron mother convicted of falsifying her address so that her children could attend a better, safer school. Kelly Williams-Bolar was jailed for nine days when she was convicted of falsely using her father’s address to enroll her two daughters in a school about two miles from her house, but not in her school district (she resided in the Akron School District; the school was in the neighboring and better performing Copley-Fairlawn District). Williams-Bolar sought clemency so that she could continue to pursue her education and career path of becoming a special education teacher. With the felony conviction, getting her teaching certificate would have been practically impossible.
Williams-Bolar stated that her concern about her daughters’ safety at the neighborhood school was what motivated her to falsify her residency records.
This case touched many nerves for many reasons. School choice advocates pointed to it as an example of the desperate need for parents like Williams-Bolar to have choice to escape failing or unsafe schools (w/o having to wait out the years required for a transfer under No Child Left Behind). Those in the social justice arena saw it as yet another example of the haves (a wealthier suburban district) excluding the have-nots (a poorer, more urban/minority district). Defenders of the status quo public education system saw it as more evidence of an underfunded public school system, where kids aren’t safe to attend their neighborhood school.
When it comes to public school choice, I really do feel like I’ve landed on another planet. I will never understand a system that does not allow parents to choose their own public school, particularly when the schools are taxpayer funded. I realize if we did start choosing our public schools it would be messy – extremely messy (e.g., transportation, funding, you name it). But that doesn’t make school choice a bad idea. It just makes it hard. Yes there are pockets of public school choice, but for most, these are oversubscribed lotteries where chances of entry are slim. The daily reality is that most families, esp low income ones, must attend their neighborhood school.
But the dirty little secret (and this is hardly a secret) is that school choice DOES exist for many families. Families who have the means to research schools and pick (and afford housing in) the right neighborhood. Families who can afford private school or homeschooling. Families who can afford to supplement subpar teaching w/ after-school tutoring. But as a single Mom going to school, working and caring for her elderly, sick father, Williams-Bolar didn’t have those resources to exercise the same choice others do. So she did what she thought she had to do. A lot of mothers can identify with this. And that’s why the story is such a powerful one.