Education, School Choice and Local News

Years ago, back in the era of dead-tree newspapers and magazines, Akron generated some national news — mostly economic. Every four years the tire and rubber manufacturers — Goodyear, Firestone, General Tire, and my employer, Goodrich — sat down with the United Rubber Workers to hammer out an agreement that had national implications, often setting the pattern for contracts that touched the lives of thousands of American workers in the auto, steel and other industries that used to matter.

Those days are long gone now — along with most of the jobs and the national media coverage you would see in The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, Business Week, The New York Times and locally in the Akron Beacon Journal, which at one time, while hard to believe today, really was an excellent local if not regional newspaper.

Anyway, I was thinking about all of this again over the weekend because of a story –two stories really, one essentially local and one national. The stories involve Akron — and more specifically, the small community I live in just west of the city, Copley — that is sparking considerable national interest on some big-ticket items, education, school choice and racism among them.

And I’ll take the easy route here and let an article in WaPo this morning by Kevin Huffman provide the back-story, “A Rosa Parks moment for education“:

Last week, 40-year-old Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was released after serving nine days in jail on a felony conviction for tampering with records. Williams-Bolar’s offense? Lying about her address so her two daughters, zoned to the lousy Akron city schools, could attend better schools in the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn district.

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.)

Meanwhile, conservatives view the case as evidence of the need for broader school choice. What does it say when parents’ options are so limited that they commit felonies to avoid terrible schools? Commentator Kyle Olson and others across the political spectrum have called this “a Rosa Parks moment for education.”

For me, the case struck an additional nerve. As a young teacher nearly two decades ago, I taught bilingual first grade in Houston. Some of my students were in this country illegally; by my third year, a number of them also lived outside the school and district zone. Given their substandard neighborhood options, some parents drove 30 minutes or more each way just so their kids could be in my class. I was supportive of, and flattered by, their efforts. These were good parents, doing the best they could for their families.

In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school.

But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment “choice” school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.

Williams-Bolar lived in subsidized housing and was trapped in a failed system. In a Kafkaesque twist, she was taking college-level courses to become a teacher herself – a dream she now will never realize as a convicted felon. It’s America’s version of the hungry man stealing bread to feed his family, only to have his hand cut off as punishment.

Wow. Any city would kill for this kind of national publicity. You listening Akron Chamber of Commerce? I digress.

I moved to Copley 20 some years ago from another small community south of Akron. And for a reason that I still don’t completely understand, my son and daughter went to the Revere schools, not Copley. No matter. Both were and are excellent public school systems. And I moved to the community for several reasons, but the quality of the schools was certainly high, if not topping the list.

Full disclosure: My wife taught in the Akron Public Schools system for 30 years, but given the choice — which we had economically — there was no way we were going to send our children to school there, save maybe Firestone High School on Akron’s west side, close to Copley. Go figure.

And we’ve had a front row seat to witness the decline of the Akron Public School system, once a model for an urban school district, but today certainly no better and in many ways worse than most around the country. Wonder if the deterioration of the Akron schools has any connection to the loss of quality, well-paying middle-class manufacturing jobs? I digress again.

The local story about Kelley Williams-Bolar starts with the fact that she committed and was convicted of a crime, a felony. That fact — and others involving charges of racism and so on — have been well-reported (see Akron Law Cafe, “Separate Schools: The Copley Township Case“) by the Akron Beacon Journal and other local news outlets. And for what it’s worth. Kelley Williams-Bolar doesn’t strike me as a totally sympathetic character in all of this. And she isn’t Rosa Parks, unless Rosa Parks sneaked onto the bus.

But this, by the nature of the issues involved, is not just a local story. And unfortunately, I don’t see as much commentary or discussion locally as I do nationally about the big elephant in the room here: the pathetic state of education in this country and what we need to do to fix it.

As an example of the national coverage, here’s from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank Inside the Beltway:

This Wednesday morning at 10 am, after serving nine days of a 10-day sentence, Kelley Williams-Bolar was released from the Summit County Jail in Akron, Ohio. Her crime? Trying to provide her two daughters with a better education. How on earth did trying to provide your children with a better education become a crime in the United States? Because the political party that currently occupies the White House is completely dependent on the power of education unions, and these unions see all efforts to shift power away from them, and to parents like Williams-Bolar, as a threat to their very existence. The case of Williams-Bolar is a perfect opportunity for the left to stop and reconsider their war on school choice.

Before January 15, Williams-Bolar had no criminal record. She lived in an Akron housing project with her two daughters, worked as a teaching assistant at Buchtel High School, and was going to college to further her own education career. Like any parent, Williams-Bolar wanted to give her children the best education possible. But the grade 6 reading and math scores of students in the Akron City School District are almost 30 points lower than those in neighboring Copley-Fairlawn City School District. While Ohio does allow school choice intradistrict, Copley-Fairlawn does not offer open enrollment to children who live in the Akron City School District. Ohio also offers private-school-tuition scholarships to students in Cleveland, but that program is not available to children in Akron.

So starting in August 2006, Williams-Bolar signed forms claiming her two daughters lived at their father’s address in the Copley-Fairlawn School District. Two years later the Copley-Fairlawn School District hired a private investigator who shot video of Williams-Bolar driving her children from their home in the Akron City School District to a school in their district. “It does not matter if, when she started the lie in 2006, she didn’t know she was going to get caught,” Summit County prosecutor Michael Cody yelled in his closing argument.

While Williams-Bolar went to jail for practicing school choice, leaders of the Democratic Party practice it themselves every day. Growing up in Chicago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended a private school. Later as Chicago Public Schools chief, Duncan maintained a list of requests from the politically connected for their children to attend the schools of their choice. In the 111th Congress, 44 percent of Senators and 36 percent of Representatives had at one time sent their children to private school.

Growing up in Hawaii, President Obama attended a private school. Growing up first in Chicago and now in Washington, Obama’s two daughters attended and still attend private schools. Questioned how he could possibly justify this in September, President Obama responded: “I’ll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But the broader problem is: For a mom or a dad who are working hard but don’t have a bunch of connections, don’t have a choice in terms of where they live, they should be getting the same quality education as anybody else, and they don’t have that yet.”

OK. This is an important story involving my community — but it touches on a critical national issue: how do we improve the quality of education in every community so that all of our young people have an opportunity to succeed in school and in life — and that the USA has a shot at remaining competitive with other nations in what really is today a global economy.

That’s the story that both the Akron Beacon Journal and other local news media and the national media should be focusing on.

Just sayin’.

2 responses to “Education, School Choice and Local News

  1. The way we get good education in all districts is for the parents to make sure their children are studying at home and doing extra work as well. Also, most schools have a way for you to attend outside your district. This one particular school involved above did not. It’s also good for parents not to break the law in order to get what they want as that is good for the children to witness. I have known folks who weant to weaker schools and came out brilliant because they studied, studied, studied and were supported by parents. It’s not necessarily the school, it’s the people who attend and do not work that makes the difference.

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