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Ohio woman jailed for sending kids to school just wanted a choice

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Contributor
  • Roland Martin says Ohio mom's actions are no surprise
  • She wanted to make sure her children got a quality education, he says
  • We have an education system that is unequal, unfair and not equitable, he says
  • He proposes voucher system that would allow various kinds of education

Editor's note: Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- If you lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood where your home was broken into a dozen times and the school your children were zoned to was low-performing, wouldn't you take drastic measures to ensure they got a quality education?

That's exactly what Kelley Williams-Bolar did, pulling her 12- and 16-year-old daughters out of the decrepit school they attended in Akron, Ohio, and enrolling them in a suburban district where her father lived.

Williams-Bolar used her father's address, where she alleges she lived part-time. Yet the Copely-Fairlawn School District felt she was lying about being a resident, and hired a private eye to follow her, videotaping Williams-Bolar leaving her public housing home and dropping her children off at the suburban school.

They confronted Williams-Bolar, demanded that she repay the district $30,000, saying she didn't have the right to have her daughters in the district since she wasn't a taxpayer.

When she refused, Williams-Bolar was indicted on two felony charges, found guilty and sentenced to 10 days in prison. Because of the felonies on her record, the aspiring schoolteacher will never be able to enter the classroom.

Once the story hit the national media, it led to significant coverage, angering folks nationwide.

Some see this as an issue of race: The mother and her children are black; the district is largely white.

But that really isn't the fundamental issue. What this problem should highlight for anyone is the clear disparities in urban and suburban school districts, and how we have an education system that is unequal, unfair and not equitable.

Too many Americans are delusional in thinking we have a national education system that is fair. It isn't. We all know that you can go from community to community and see some elementary, middle and high school campuses that look like college campuses, while others look like prisons.

Those districts with money hire teachers with master's degrees and Ph.D.s; those with little money rely on those with only teacher certificates. Those with money can invest in iPads and laptops; those without are thankful just to have enough chalk, erasers and pencils. It's so bad that teachers nationwide often dip into their own pockets just to purchase school supplies for many of their students. Yet well-to-do schools might have athletic complexes that rival universities in top athletic conferences.

Did Williams-Bolar break the law? Yes. Was the sentence she was given fair? Of course not. And I dare say many of us, when faced with a school system that will put our children further and further behind the learning curve, would have a "by any means necessary" focus to ensure they had the best chance to succeed.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama presented his bold vision to transform our nation's education system, but when the bulk of dollars come from local property taxes, there isn't much the federal government can do.

That means if you live in a well-off neighborhood, you're likely to see thousands more dollars being spent on education in that district than in districts where the property values are much lower.

The jailing of Williams-Bolar also raises the controversial issue of school choice. The Obama administration says it fully supports school choice, but that is limited to charter and magnet schools.

I've long contended that all choices should be presented to parents, including vouchers, allowing those from the worst-performing schools to be able to take the dollars allocated for their child and enroll in a private or parochial school.

If we are going to truly confront the education crisis in this country, nothing should be off the table. Whether we like it or not, there is no one way to educate a child. Take your pick: public school, private school, home school, charter schools, technical schools, college preps, ROTC academies, magnet programs, all-male, all-female, even online-only schools. You name it, I'm for it.

All Williams-Bolar wanted was for her kids to have a shot. And at the end of the day, that's what we all should want. But it is going to require men and women of conscience to stop with our attitude of protecting what we see as ours and be willing to create an educational system that is truly one this nation could be proud of.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.