update on williams-bolar

The case of Kelley Williams-Bolar is still pending.

Williams-Bolar sent her children to another school due to safety issues and she falsified records to do so even though her father lived in the district, less than 2 miles from her home. There are two issues in this case that concern me. From the second linked post, a good summary of events:
The case began in the 2006-2007 school year, when Williams-Bolar’s daughters were in middle school. After the family’s home was burglarized, the Akron mother feared for her daughters’ safety and decided to transfer them to the Copley-Fairlawn school district where her father lives. For the children to be accepted, she had to state that she and the children were living with their grandfather.

The school district spent more than $6,000 to hire private detectives, who followed the children home to show that they were staying with their mother in Akron, and not with their grandfather.

In the past several years, the Copley-Fairlawn district has expelled 48 students who were found not be living in the area. This is the first case where they insisted on prosecuting the mother. There is no case in recent Ohio history in which parents have been prosecuted for sending their children to another school.

Akron was once the leading rubber manufacturing hub of the world, with companies like Firestone and Goodyear employing tens of thousands. Akron currently has a population of 207,216. According to census records, 12,282 households live on less than $10,000 a year. An additional 25,000 households live on less than $25,000 a year.

Faced with deteriorating public school systems like that in Akron, tens of thousands of parents in cities across the country send their kids to better school districts using the address of their parents, grandparents or other relatives.

While better off than the Akron school district, the Copley-Fairlawn district is facing severe financial shortfalls, and cuts in state and federal support are placing pressure on the district to trim costs.

The jailing of a working class mother for sending her two children to a more affluent neighboring school district with the hope of getting them a better education is meant to send a chilling message to every parent, grandparent or guardian desperate to provide a better future for their children and lift them out of poverty.
Compulsory Attendance Confuses Funding
Some have said that this type of thing comes about due to the unfair distribution of school funding in Ohio and some other states. And many states do have equitable funding laws.  Equitable funding has not solved the core issues with schools in other states. But it is fair and God knows, few in the US seem to understand the immense social value of fairness to ensuring a stable society.  The school district made theft charges that were dropped, declaring that Williams-Bolar stole something.  If she had actually tried to pay the $30, 000 this school district said she owed, it would have been criminal.  It was the school district itself that spent money on investigators, cost of litigation, cost of jail, passing some of that cost on to the city and state, all purportedly to save money. 

This turf war is a sign of the pressure schools face from corporate-funded political groups and corporate media pumping out anti-teacher and pro-charter propaganda relentlessly. Do they really want to go there?  Can we means-test these parents who feel entitled to their property tax schools?  Does this school district access state colleges on a pro-rated per district basis?  I'll bet the kids from that good district take up more seats at college than those from the poorer district though poor parents pay a far higher percentage of their income for taxes, some of which help fund state institutions, which should mean even more access for the poor. Compulsory attendance laws confuse funding issues by tying funding to attendance though they were never meant to enable school districts to become private clubs.

By putting a price on the time in the seat, compulsory attendance laws wind up assigning funding on a per child basis.  And now many are pushing to allow students to move their funding: to private schools with vouchers, to charter schools, and for special education needs.  Many powerful groups frame school choice as a choice to move your child's funding to another school, just like, you guessed it, a free market.  Except this is not a market at all: it is just moving funding from school to school without much real choice for the parents and kids.  Every child is still required to attend so many days and meet so many standards and take so many tests.  Sure, in some cases, a change is good or good for awhile but in the long run and for most, since most never get to move, there still isn't any real choice involved anywhere.  So it is really a shell game when it comes to system change, real choice for families is not yet on the table.

We need to think of this issue in another way.  If we could think about real choice by parents at every school and how to make that happen, we would be getting somewhere.  Real choice would have to mean that a family could choose fewer classes or take different classes than a set roster.  It would mean  goodbye to the factory model of every child on the assembly line being filled with the same Grade A, government issue curriculum.  It would mean hello to parents and kids actually choosing what they want and schools being in the business of providing learning services for families and kids. Teachers could finally just work with kids and families and not be in charge of the assembly line. And it would mean, by definition, hello to school administrations and local boards and district managers actually focusing their bureaucratic talents and energy on what parents and kids want.

The tide has been moving the other way now as schools are trying to bully parents and students more and more. The Williams-Bolar case is not an aberration: this is the face of mass coerced schooling today.

The Police Power of Schools
I also want to focus on the use of police and private investigators and courts to prosecute Ms. Williams-Bolars's after ongoing safety issues, and a home invasion, in her housing project made her want an alternative.  When vital services are not offered, Williams-Bolar made the right decision to take care of her kids. And that is why the case of Williams-Bolar is so disturbing to me: our schools have the police power to do this to a parent trying to get a good education for her kids.  Why do schools have and use police on citizens?  This school spent $6,000 on private investigators, an outrageous procedure and a complete waste of money -- that could have been used otherwise -- and abuse of authority.

I think people accept the police power of schooling and then they accept a lot more authoritarian approaches to community issues and everything else.  We also easily accept the loss of liberty as shown by the easy growth of something called Homeland Security, whatever that might be. Schools should not have or use police powers at all.  Schools are a social service and in no way does the function of schooling in a community need or call for police.

Mediating situations like that of Williams-Bolar should be a service offered by the schools and cases like these should never reach a courtroom.  Why aren't parents able to walk into schools and get counseling and advice on these issues?  It is because schools treat parents and families as problems and that is because schools have power over families instead of the other way around. Schools should be working for families.

A school system that was focused on the families by providing services to them instead of using their police power to make everything a control issue would have a lot of ways to help someone like Williams-Bolar.  A counselor could have suggested that she move in with her father, for example, and provided the transition help.  Or her kids could have taken a few classes here and some there while a safety program was implemented in her neighborhood.  Or her kids may have received a temporary visa to the other school for a year while options were reviewed.  This is standard social service work and families need support services like these from schools that are actually invested in helping families and kids.

Understanding What Compulsory Attendance Means
Schools will never become advisory and helpful participants in communities if they have police power over families. Schools have grown used to this situation and citizens have also grown used to these authoritarian, top-down solutions. Now districts like the one Williams-Bolar is dealing with want to expand that power to ensure their private club of a school is properly policed. This is a far cry from what was intended when compulsory attendance was enacted to require children to attend for a few years and to move toward a literate society.

I think schools and the social experience within them create a patterning that impacts everyone who attends and this means the power and authority of rigid rules, bells, tests, grades, hierarchy and coercion. Even wealthy schools where these methods are muted by the general well-being will produce citizens more comfortable with authoritarian methods than they would be otherwise.

The case of Williams-Bolar is an alarming one in what it tells us about institutions and about ourselves. And it is a clear marker that we are way overdue to bring schools into the 21st century where they can play productive roles in their communities.  Ending the ability of schools to police families is a first step toward making schools community resources that work with families and kids instead of against them.
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