A mother's attempt to secure a better education for her children has earned her a status as a convicted felon. Yet her case exposes a much larger and much more harmful crime that has been going on in the U.S. school system for decades.
Forty-year-old Kelley Williams-Bolar, who worked as a teacher's aide, broke the law when she claimed on enrollment forms that her two daughters lived in a nearby suburb with their father. In actuality, the girls lived with her, in the Akron housing project, where the schools are sub-standard. Hoping to get her children out of a poor-performing and underfunded school to give them a chance at a better education, she flubbed the truth.
A jury convicted her in January, and she was given two concurrent five-year sentences. Judge Patricia Cosgrove reduced that to 10 days in jail, two years of probation, and 80 hours of community service, but only after a good scolding. She told the mother she had to serve some time "so that others who think they might defraud the school system, perhaps, will think twice."
Seeing hypocrisy from U.S. judges is as predictable as the rising of the sun each day, but judge Cosgrove really should check herself before she gets too carried away with self-righteous condemnation. It's not just Williams-Bolar who committed a crime here. The state of Ohio and its government officials (including judge Cosgrove) have been perpetrating a much more extensive fraud millions of times over, and one that harms children (and society) far more than what Williams-Bolar did.
Under Ohio's constitution, written in 1851, Ohio's General Assembly is required to "secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state." Yet Ohio provides only a portion of the cost for educating its children, leaving the rest up to local jurisdictions. This, however, fuels an unfair imbalance that punishes the schools of the poor.
Since 1997, Ohio's Supreme Court has ruled on 4 separate occasions that the state's approach to funding public education is unconstitutional. The state has essentially ignored these rulings, disregarding law and leaving in place its system of funding that favors the rich and punishes the poor. Elected officials continue to offer nothing more than symbolic and meaningless band-aids that keep the status quo in place.
It's not just Ohio where these grave disparities exist. In fact, ,all 50 states in the Union rig funding for schools in similar manners, and child advocates have for decades cried foul about how this distorts the system and creates unequal opportunities. Middle class and upper-income kids get schools in richer areas with a higher tax base to properly pay for education, while lower-income students get the shaft. As McLanahan & Sandefur point out, "public school financing is community-based and schools with a high concentration of minority students usually have a low tax base." (*1)
This has long been one of the most fundamental problems with our education system, cited by numerous experts as one of the top reasons that lower income students under-perform. It's not as though elected officials are unaware that this injustice is going on...they just choose to look the other direction. Low income areas pay fewer income taxes, have low rates of home ownership (a primary source of educational funding is property taxes in most districts), and fewer sales tax revenues. This means less money for their schools, which means fewer programs, run-down equipment and facilities, and less funds to pay the type of salaries that would keep quality teachers from defecting to districts that can afford to pay more.
What's worse, these disparities will only widen as the budget crunch many states are in drags on. Time magazine reports that in many districts, parents are chipping in to pay a portion of the school's budget to fund a librarian or PE and music teachers, so that the schools can keep such programs for their children. Yet parents in poorer neighborhoods can't afford such things. As a result, there are "PTA wars" cropping up, in which parents from different schools are at each other's throat because one school is able to fund programs for children that another school cannot.
Meanwhile, the injustice lives on. Small potatoes like Williams-Bolar are held accountable to the law, while judges and state officials are allowed to disregard it with complete impunity. We'd like to see Judge Patricia Cosgrove stand behind her position, and put her own children or grandchildren in the school next to the housing project. Or better yet, charge herself with a felony for depriving lower-income students of their lawful right to a fair education--a theft of epic proportions. Perhaps then she'll consider enforcing the law on behalf of poor children too, and not waste time defending an unjust system that is breaking its own constitution, while defrauding Ohio's children of an equal opportunity for a decent education.
1. Sarah McLanahan & Gary Sandefur, 'Growing Up With A Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps.' Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1994, p. 121
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