Closing the Academic Achievement Gap Without Jailing Parents

kelley williams bolar

Kelley Williams-Bolar

“Being oppressed means the absence of choices.” —bell hooks

Here’s a question for those of you who are fans of 1990s pop culture: Do you remember that episode of Beverly Hills 90210, in which authorities discover that Gabrielle Carteris’ character, Andrea Zuckerman, has been secretly living outside of the school district, so she gets kicked out of school and they lock up her family for illegal enrollment, larceny, theft by deception, and records tampering?

Sorry. My mistake. Andrea goes on to receive an acceptance letter to Yale, and gives the commencement address as the valedictorian of her high school class.

I confused the fates of fictional, non-affluent characters on television, with the real-life nightmares, Americans who barely get by, have found when attempting to provide their children with the best educational opportunity available.

Kelley Williams-Bolar, a 41-year-old, single mother from Akron, Ohio, was charged last year, with both felony larceny and records tempering, for using her father’s address to enroll her two children in a neighboring school district. The Copley-Fairlawn School District hired a private investigator to shoot video of Ms. Williams-Bolar driving her children to school, and then ordered her to pay $30,000 in back tuition, under threat of felony charges.

A felony conviction would have prevented Ms. Williams-Bolar, a teacher’s aide, and student pursuing a degree in family child development, from obtaining the very license to teach upon which her career aspirations relied. But she didn’t have $30,000. Ms. Williams-Bolar was sentenced to jail and probation, until public outrage led Governor John Kasich to intervene, and reduce her convictions to misdemeanors.

Marie Menard of Stratford, Connecticut, and Ana Wade of Milford, were arrested on October 20, 2010, and charged with first-degree larceny, and conspiracy, for allegedly enrolling Ms. Wade’s children in Stratford schools using Ms. Menard’s address.

tonya mcdowell

Tonya McDowell

And that’s not even the worst of it.

A 34-year-old, homeless woman named, Tonya McDowell, used a babysitter’s address so her son could attend kindergarten in Norwalk, Connecticut. According to existing law, Ms. McDowell’s son must attend school in Bridgeport, because that’s the last place she lived, before she became homeless. Police arrested her for stealing $15,686 worth of “free” educational services from Norwalk. Authorities charged her with felony larceny. Ms. McDowell entered a plea under the Alford Doctrine. Earlier this year, she was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

But wait, there’s more.

In Kentucky, Charles Lauron, a 51-year-old, single father from Louisville, was informed last year that he would be facing felony theft by deception for enrolling his son in Oldham County Schools while living in Lyndon. Mr. Lauron was confronted with a bill for $26,000, and the threat of a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. He wasn’t alone.

Oldham County Schools went to court to seek legal action against Jim McGuire for using his address for enrollment, when his child’s primary residence was in Jefferson County with his mother, Cheryl McGuire.

Oldham County Schools also contracted the same investigators that spied on the McGuires to muckrake enough dirt to bring charges against, Dawne Grigsby, for using her mother’s address to enroll her two children, whose home residence is in Henry County.

In Illinois, Annette Callahan, became worried when her honor-roll, fifth grade, fraternal twins scored below state averages on their annual standardized exams. One had been badly bullied, harmed both physically and verbally, as well. Ms. Callahan, and her ex-husband, Samuel Callahan, agreed that it would be best to take the kids out of Waukegan schools, and enroll them in the Beach Park school district. After all, the couple enjoys shared custody, and therefore their kids also call their father’s residence in Beach Park home.

But the district accused the Callahans of “illegal enrollment,” and ordered their children removed. They appealed… three times. Beach Park responded by hiring a private investigator to seek enough evidence to move forward with legal action against the Callahans. Undaunted, they demanded the district make public the findings of its investigation. Beach Park backed down temporarily from its threats of legal action, yet continues to insist that the Callahans must demonstrate a “more concrete residency plan.”

Transformative change is urgently needed.

annette callahan

Annette Callahan

As RiShawn Biddle writes in Dropout Nation,

“No family should have to be shackled to dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity. They should have the ability to escape those failure factories and attend any high quality school available to them… Meanwhile this unwillingness to overhaul school financing perpetuates one of the tenets of the Poverty Myth of Education held so deeply by so many education traditionalists: That poor and minorities don’t share the same interest in providing their children with a high quality education as they do, and won’t do whatever it takes to help their kids succeed… Some 420,000 children are waiting for seats in the nation’s charter schools, the nation’s most-prominent form of choice; minorities make up 30 percent of enrollment in the nation’s dwindling collection of Catholic diocesan schools… It is high time to end Zip Code Education that wrongly criminalizes the fight to provide every child what they deserve.”

Don’t get me wrong, turning school systems into competitive marketplaces won’t automatically lead to the day all children are extended the opportunity to attain an excellent education. School choice voucher programs are no panacea. Their universal introduction without additional systemic reforms would merely make the Pre K-12 landscape mirror the current state of higher education. The widespread availability of financial aid (grants, scholarships, student loans, and public/private funding sources) hasn’t improved outcomes for students of color. Only four out of every ten African Americans, and one out of every two Latinos, who enroll in college complete a bachelor’s degree in six years or less.

Nevertheless, it’s time to imagine a world without enrollment boundaries.

While highly in-demand schools would need to hold admission lotteries, and a number of neighborhood parents would get turned away (leading to lawsuits and political backlash). The stress level of school bus schedulers would rival that of air traffic controllers. And thousands of additional cars would crowd already congested roads, as those with the means to do so engaged in daily commutes to and from their chosen schools.

We might very well be forced to deal with educational inequity head on.

After all, we already live in the age of the Parent Trigger, Teachers for a New Unionism, Teaching 2030, Educators4ExcellencePromise Neighborhoods, KIPP, and other nationally ranked public charters, the Reed, et al. v. State of California settlement, as well as verdicts designed to protect the rights of a English language learners, special education and undocumented students, and so on and so forth.

Isn’t the introduction of open enrollment in this setting more likely to successfully address inequity than it would be in a world without these players and circumstances?

To quote the L.A. Times,

“If students had endless options for attending school, racial imbalances in enrollment would begin to even out… So would private donations; it’s unlikely that one school would be awash in parent-funded enrichment programs while another couldn’t afford a computer… Teachers who in the past might have fled inner-city schools for the suburbs would have less reason to transfer. Parents who wouldn’t dream of sending their children to a rundown school… might be forced to admit that it’s no more acceptable for other children to have to attend that school. The classic response to complaints about educational inequities has been that the district has to work harder on providing top-quality neighborhood schools for low-income students. That theory, nice as it sounds, has been as fraught with practical

Nearly sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, black and brown students are more segregated than they’ve been in generations. Fewer than six out of ten of all African American and Latino high school students complete high school. Graduation rates for students that attend school in high poverty districts lag 15-to-18% behind their peers. The achievement gap aversely impacts not only poor children in failing schools, but most children, in most schools. According to McKinsey & Company this harms our economic well-being as a whole. Stated more bluntly, the achievement gap imposes the equivalent of a permanent
national recession

Everyone is frustrated: Parents. Teachers. Principals. Everyone.

91% of Latino parents, and 86% of African-American parents, say it is “quite” or “extremely” important for their children to attend and graduate from college. African American and Latino parents know public education is underfunded, and believe budget cuts will further diminish educational opportunity and quality. Yet parents of color feel removed from the debates politicians, philanthropists, pundits, and public figures, are engaged in over standardized testing, per-pupil funding, value-added educator evaluations, common core curriculums, and charter schools.

Students are suffering.

Students are not only being condemned to life sentences of educational inequity, their caregivers are being sentenced to jail and parole for trying to break them out of underperforming schools.

unai montes-iruesteStudents face the disadvantage of not being prepared for college and career, and learn unequivocally that any attempt to challenge the status quo, and the power structure it represents, will result in police arrest and court action.

If, as President Obama has argued, the best possible education is not only the key to opportunity, but also the civil rights issue of our time.

Then, tomorrow is today, and with the fierce urgency of now, we must march ahead.

Unai Montes-Irueste

Posted: Monday, 14 May 2012


  1. Reggie Brown says

    Students are not only being condemned to life sentences of educational inequity…

    Oh c’mon. It’s always about the bad schools, bad teachers, never about the bad parents or lazy kids. Anyone who can get to a library can take online classes for every major subject taught in our public schools. Heck, a lot of kids have phones that can access these classes. But for many kids, it’s just more important to hang out causing trouble than to buckle down and do the work it takes to be successful in life.
    Of course we should increase funding for education, and strive to have the best teachers and resources we possibly can. But really:

    it’s unlikely that one school would be awash in parent-funded enrichment programs while another couldn’t afford a computer…

    Please name one school in LA, just ONE school that doesn’t have computers. Get real. We pour an enormous amount of money into schools, especially for computers and other technology. Our teachers are well trained, and for the most part, excellent educators. When they’re not, kids and families have other resources they can utilize, including helping your kids at home.
    Yeah, it sucks that some kids’ families have more money than others. And that plays out with donations to schools for enrichment programs. But it also plays out a million other ways. Rich kids might get tennis lessons, horseback riding, trips to other countries, a lovely home on the beach, tutors, college paid for by parents, more tutors… My point is, life is unfair. That doesn’t mean those without money are without resources. Poor kids get free college. Is that fair to the middle income kids? Schools are going to have enrichment programs paid for by wealthier parents. Maybe one school has a great theater group while another doesn’t. Does that mean poorer parents can’t take the time and effort to help their own kids?
    Quit complaining about the schools and start thinking about personal responsibility. That’s the key to success if you come from a low income family.

  2. says

    This situation is disgusting and UN – AMERICAN to the extreme .

    thank the gop and ‘ no child left behind ‘ B.S. for this .

    Children are America and The World’s future ~ what kind of stupid administrators don’t understand this basic concept ? .

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