By DeWayne Wickham
Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law when she falsified some documents so her children would have a chance at a better education in a safer school. But that law, which has turned her into a convicted felon, breaks Ohio’s compact with its citizens.
The 40-year-old teacher’s aide was given two concurrent 5-year sentences last month after a jury found her guilty of two counts of tampering with evidence for filing forms in which she claimed her two daughters lived in a nearby suburb with her father. She did this so they could attend a school in the suburban Copley-Fairlawn district instead of one closer to the Akron, Ohio housing project where the girls actually lived with her.
Judge Patricia Cosgrove reduced Williams-Bolar’s sentence to 10 days in jail and ordered her to perform 80 hours of community service and two years of probation. She also told the distraught mother she had to serve some time “so that others who think they might defraud the school system, perhaps, will think twice.”
But, in fact, it is the state of Ohio – and the flawed system of public education it created – that has defrauded the children of Williams-Bolar.
Since its creation in 1851, the Buckeye State’s constitution has required Ohio’s General Assembly to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state…” But instead of doing this, state officials – like those in every other state in the union – have left it up to local school districts to manage public education.
Ohio provides only a portion of the cost of educating schoolchildren throughout the state and leaves it to local jurisdictions to come up with the rest. This has created an imbalance that, at least in part, fuels the disparities between poor inner city school districts like the one Williams-Bolar wanted her children to escape, and the better off suburban school system she lied to get them to attend.
Four times since 1997, Ohio’s Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional the state’s approach to funding public education. But despite those rulings the state provides just roughly half of the cost of a student’s education and leaves it up to a patchwork of over 600 school districts to come up with the rest.
Neither Ted Strickland, the Democrat who just vacated the Ohio statehouse, nor John Kasich, the Republican who defeated him in last year’s election, has proposed a fix that acknowledges their state’s sole responsibility to create “a thorough and efficient system of common schools.” Instead, they’ve proposed ideas that tweak the status quo system of state and local funding.
Like frustrated parents in many other underfunded, poor-performing districts around the country, Williams-Bolar wanted to get her children into a better school. In doing so, she broke a law that safeguards a system of education that treats her children as collateral damage in the tribalism produced by the state’s failure to fully fund public education.
While some might argue that school vouchers or more charter schools are the answer to Williams-Bolar’s plight, I think that debate allows states to duck a far more important – and impactful – discussion of their constitutional responsibility to provide children a quality education.
Ohio shortchanges it citizens when state officials fail to meet the state’s obligation to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have the same educational opportunity. As a result, Williams-Bolar was forced to deceive the guardians of Ohio’s wrongful school funding system to get her children a chance for a better education. For this she has been branded a criminal.
And that’s a crying shame.