Is Kelley Williams-Bolar The ‘Rosa Parks’ Of Education Reform?

January 31, 2011  |  

If ever there were a modern day comparison to Rosa Parks, it would be Kelley Williams-Bolar.

Williams-Bolar didn’t set out to be a household name but like Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat became the national symbol for the Civil Rights Movement, Williams-Bolar’s defiance will now serve as an important symbol of the modern day Civil Rights Movement happening now in the public education system.

The 40-year old mother became the first person in U.S. history to have been convicted of “theft” and “tampering with records” for sending her children to a better school outside of her designated school district.  Using the address of the children’s grandfather, who is a resident and pays taxes to Copley Township, Williams-Bolar enrolled her two daughters into the Copley Township school district, a much whiter and wealthier suburb in her home city of Akron, Ohio, in the hopes of pulling of them out of their own dangerous and poor performing school district.

Because of her “crime” of manipulating school residency requirements, Williams-Bolar spent nine days in jail and will have to serve two-years probation, as well as 80 hours of community service.  Moreover, because of her felony conviction (yes, I said felony), Williams-Bolar now faces the prospect of losing her job as a teaching assistant at a local high school, as well as getting kicked out of the University of Akron where she is one semester shy of completing her education degree.

The injustices in this story are plenty: first, we have the overzealous Ohio prosecutor, who chose to relentless­ly pursue a criminal conviction against Williams-Bolar when other parents who’d done the same thing were not criminally charged. While it’s hard to conclusively say if this prosecution was racially motivated, you do have to wonder why the prosecutor­’s office absolutely refused to cut a deal with Williams-B­olar and let her plead guilty to a lesser misdemeano­r charge.
Then there is the issue of how public education is funded.  Like many other states nationwide, Ohio primarily funds its education on the basis of property taxes, thereby ensuring that neighborhoods with higher home values have more money for education than schools in lower-income communities.

Because of these disparities, American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered; the average black child attending school is 59% poor compared to only 29 % of white children.  The typical Hispanic child is also subjected to similar segregated conditions.

The real fraud is that the quality of education hinges on one’s ability to afford to live in a higher-income zip code.  Instead of coming up with real solutions to address this discrepancy, the leaders in our society have chosen to establish laws to charge these desperate parents with felonies.

Sadly in Ohio, as well as across the country, a system of educational apartheid has continued to disenfranchise many from increasing their own standard of living.  If the Williams-Bolar case is not used to springboard a real movement toward education equality, such as how Rosa Parks was used to ignite the Civil Rights movement, then it will only serve to scare black, brown and other poor folks into accepting substandard education.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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