One is a story of a family having everything and wanting more, exemplifying the opportunity-hoarding of America’s often-unaccountable 1 percenters. The other is a story of a family working with what they had, seeking opportunity amid the deep forces of segregation, wealth inequality, and public underinvestment.
Williams-Bolar did not mean to become a cause célèbre any more than Huffman; she did not even realize she was doing anything wrong at the time. Having divorced her abusive spouse, she was attending the University of Akron, working as a teacher’s aide, and raising her daughters, Kayla and Jada. She wanted to become a teacher, as well as a homeowner, she told me, and she wanted to raise her daughters in better circumstances than she grew up in.
That meant seeking better options than the low-performing Akron public schools her daughters were attending. At one of them, the “ceiling [was] falling in,” she said: extensive water damage, mold, old and outdated textbooks, overworked teachers, unruly classrooms. Her kids were struggling. “My girls were very mild—especially my youngest one; she was a tiny little thing,” she said. “When my girls started getting bullied, I said no.”
Williams-Bolar’s father, Edward Williams, who lived nearby, spent ample time taking care of the girls. Williams-Bolar split time between the two homes herself — especially after her house was burglarized. The family decided to enroll the girls in school using his address in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn school district, which met all of Ohio’s 26 educational standards, whereas the Akron schools met only four. “The bullying helped push me over the edge to say, Well, my dad can take care of them. He can see that they get off and on the bus safely. He can watch them while I’m in college,” Williams-Bolar told me.
She loved that in the suburbs the girls were going to classrooms with far more resources. “That school out in Copley—they had acres of land. They had greenhouses! They had an experience that inner-city kids would never understand, you see,” she told me. “It was so fabulous—science and everything else too. But the science was what took me overboard. I was like: Look at this! They’ve got a greenhouse and it’s beautiful!”
What the Williams-Bolar family engaged in is called “boundary hopping” or “district hopping”—or, when it gets caught in the legal system, “residency fraud” or “enrollment fraud.” There are no hard numbers on how common it is, but it is very, very common, educational experts believe, particularly where high-achieving and low-achieving school districts abut one another and where inequality is acute. One survey of public schools in Berkeley, California, for instance, suggested that 8 to 12 percent of enrolled students lived out-of-bounds.
What is uncommon is for parents to be charged with a felony for engaging in the practice, rather than having their children unenrolled or being fined or, perhaps most likely, the school district looking the other way. After her kids started in the Copley-Fairlawn schools, Williams-Bolar noticed someone following her and worried she was being stalked. She started carrying mace. That “stalker” was a private investigator hired by the school district to prove that Williams-Bolar’s girls were out-of-bounds.