The New Segregation, Unequal Education For All
The recent college admissions scandal shines a light on the dark underside of the U.S.’ education system and the many widespread educational advantages affluent Americans benefit from —all while the less-advantaged struggle for a decent public education.
American Education: A Battle For the “Right School”
Getting into the “right school” begins as far back as preschool, where those who can afford it (and pass the school’s interview) spend thousands on the best pre-school. Then, it’s money on private primary schools or money on the right house in the right town with the best public schools, or it’s money on tutors, after-school programs or college prep testing.
Still, parents like those caught up in the recent college admissions scandal lie, cheat and bribe to get their children into the nation’s most prestigious colleges.
In comparison, women like Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell are arrested and jailed for their attempts to get their children a decent public school education. Both women did almost nothing that could be considered a serious moral or even legal offense.
Further, individuals like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin have the financial means to hire the best lawyers in the country to defend them in court, which can make all the difference in America’s convoluted judicial system, while impoverished Americans are left with overworked public defenders.
The legal consequences for those involved in the scandal are still developing, and, given the massive scope of the case, it will be some time before the legal consequences are known. Given the high profile nature of the case, it’s possible Huffman, Loughlin, and others could receive sentences similar to Williams-Bolar and McDowell, but that would be an anomaly in a justice system that has often given wealthy individuals the benefit of the doubt.
But how similar should the sentences be for already privileged individuals who allegedly spent hundreds of thousands to bribe and cheat their children’s way into America’s presitigous schools, while Williams-Bolar and McDowell lied or used an alternative address on a form to get into a public school?
What Were Williams-Bolar and McDowell’s Crimes?
Kelley Williams-Bolar is a single mother from Akron, Ohio, a typical rust belt city that has experienced tremendous economic difficulties as a result of the shortage of jobs that occurred after large employers like Goodrich and Firestone closed their factories. Many people in Akron struggle financially and the city’s school districts struggle equally to provide a quality education.
The main charge against Williams-Bolar is that she listed her father’s home, where her children lived part-time, as their permanent address. Williams-Bolar’s children, in fact, did spend the night at the house several times a week and did so for their own protection due to the often dangerous nature of the area where they lived with their mother.
Before making the decision to register her children’s permanent address at her father’s home, Williams-Bolar’s home was burglarized, leaving her fearful for her daughters’ well-being. ’When my home got broken into, I felt it was my duty to do something else,” said Williams-Barr.
However, school administrators’ in the Copley-Fairlawn district, the district where Williams-Bolar’s father lived and where her daughters both briefly attended school, responded with fury and a private investigator. The district hired a private investigator who followed Williams-Bolar and filmed footage of her driving her kids into the school district. The district demanded she pay $30,000 in back tuition, which Williams-Barr refused. She was thus convicted of falsifying her residence and spent 10 days in jail and put on three years of probation.
The Copley-Fairlawn district openly admitted on NPR to using drastic and draconian policies regarding residency enforcement. Brian Poe, the superintendent of the district, said that not only does the school district employ private investigators to verify the residency status of its students, it also offers cash rewards to families who report on students who don’t completely conform to the district’s residency requirements.
School district officials are quoted as saying that Williams-Bolar was effectively cheating the district out of tax dollars and that “those dollars need to stay home with our students.”
What Williams-Barr really tapped into was deep-seated resentment and beliefs about class distinction present in communities with schools that are traditionally regarded as superior to those in surrounding areas.
The case of Tanya McDowell is even more troubling with regard to the punishment she received. The Connecticut mother was homeless at the time, and as a result, had no residency in a school district that her five-year-old son could attend. She attempted to enroll her son in a Norwalk, Connecticut, school district and ended up being charged with larceny and sentenced to five years in prison after a plea deal.
McDowell expressed her shock at the sentence when she mused, “Who would have thought that wanting a good education for my son would put me in this predicament?”
Is There a Solution?
Open enrollment policies, which allow children to attend school in any school district, even if it’s not the one they live in, are one possible solution to this problem of inequality, but the idea faces strong opposition. “Allowing parents to select any school, basically open enrollment for all schools, would meet with strenuous opposition in some areas, especially where students are performing well. Initiating such a program would be quite complicated in terms of staffing, space and programs,” said Eileen Bacha, a former high school English teacher in northeastern Ohio for decade.
School voucher programs have also been around for decades, and Bacha discussed one such program called EdChoice, which she said, “private schools use to increase the diversity of their student body.”
The Ohio Department of Education runs the statewide program EdChoice, and many of the participating schools are in Akron, the city where the Williams-Bolar case is taking place. According to the department’s website, the program’s purpose is to give “students from underperforming public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools.” However, the application process is difficult and daunting, and EdChoice is far from an open enrollment policy.
Additionally, the disparities alone between different public school districts can be staggering. “Wealthier areas have excellent systems, while other districts lag behind in funding, student-teacher ratios, quality of school buildings and programs, and basic opportunities,” Bacha added.
The American Dream: Equal Opportunity For All
School district officials in the districts involved in both the Williams-Bolar and McDowell cases accused the mothers of “stealing” a better education for their children. But how does someone steal a public education that’s supposed to have some basic parity of quality and be free for all American children to access? Given that education plays a huge role in determining job and income opportunities in our adult lives, it is no surprise that it is so difficult to break the cycle of poverty under our twisted education and penal systems.
Not only did Williams-Bolar and McDowell’s cases expose the dark side of education in the U.S. but also the systemic biases in the American penal system. Would Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin have served 10 days in jail for sending their kids to school in the Copley-Fairlawn district by using their grandparent’s address? The idea that they will wind up behind bars for that same crime is not probable.
Ironically enough, Williams-Bolar was studying to become a teacher when she was arrested, a dream that is now in doubt even with this history of misdemeanors.
When asked about instances in which parents falsify information related to their residence in an effort to provide their children with a better education, Bacha responded that “falsifying an address is illegal in Ohio, so unless the law is changed, parents are teaching their children that it is acceptable to break the law selectively. If they wish to view this as an act of civil disobedience, parents, like anti-war protesters and civil rights activists, accept the ultimate consequences of their actions.”
But yes, while many may agree Americans can’t break the law selectively, isn’t our penal and judicial system applying the laws and doling out punishment selectively? Even more so, isn’t our free and equal education system really now also a selective process?
Despite the progress made since Brown vs. Board of Education, the reality of the situation is that a large number of schools in America are still segregated based on race and income and that children from poorer families are very unlikely to receive the quality of education that middle-class and affluent children do.
Money plays a huge role in American higher education, and even if they aren’t necessarily breaking any laws, wealthy parents can secure their children spots at top universities through making donations, as was the case when Jared Kushner’s family gave $2.5 million to Harvard.
Due to budget constraints and population changes, the traditional neighborhood public school is disappearing. Many public schools in American cities have permanently closed, leaving parents and students with fewer education options and making it increasingly difficult for public education to function properly.
Until education is affordable and equal for all American children, regardless of where they live or how much money their parents have, our growing wealth inequality will only grow even more extreme.