A few months ago, Kelley Williams-Bolar started getting phone calls in the middle of the night, telling her she was on the news again. People were tagging her on Facebook and mentioning her on Twitter. “Honestly, I didn’t put the two together! I didn’t think other people would put the two together!” she told me this week.
The “two together” are Williams-Bolar and Felicity Huffman. Both are committed mothers of daughters. Both are working women. Both have become national-media sensations. Both are accused of committing crimes to obtain a better education for their children.
But Williams-Bolar and Huffman are not so much analogues as funhouse-mirror versions of each other, their stories of justice and injustice similar and yet distorted and converse. Huffman, who starred on Desperate Housewives, has admitted to paying $15,000 for a proctor to correct her daughter’s standardized-test scores. She was swept up in the “Varsity Blues” investigation into corruption, bribery, and fraud in elite-college admissions, and today she received a two-week sentence. A decade ago, Williams-Bolar was a single, black mother living in public housing. In 2011, the state of Ohio convicted and imprisoned her for falsifying her address to get her kids into better public schools. At Huffman’s sentencing hearing, a federal prosecutor cited Williams-Bolar’s case, calling prison the “great leveler.”
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 At one of them, the “ceiling [was] falling in,” she said: extensive water damage, mold, old and outdated textbooks, overworked teachers, unruly classrooms.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.
Things spiraled from there: Williams-Bolar and her father were charged with felonies related to the falsification of records and theft of public education. They fought the charges, believing that they had done nothing wrong. The jury in Edward Williams’s trial failed to reach a verdict; Williams-Bolar was convicted of some charges and handed two concurrent five-year sentences, suspended down to 10 days. The judge presiding over her case argued that “others who think they might defraud the school system perhaps will think twice.”
If we have little hard data on boundary-hopping, we have even less on punishments for boundary-hopping. But some researchers argue that school districts have become more aggressive in identifying out-of-bounds students, purging them, and legally threatening their parents. And it looks like the students who get bounced are disproportionately low-income and nonwhite, as are the parents who end up enmeshed in the justice system.
Around the same time that Williams-Bolar went to trial, Tonya McDowell, a homeless single mother in Connecticut, was convicted on similar charges. She ended up in jail; the friend who let her use her address for enrollment purposes wound up homeless and briefly lost custody of her own children.
Williams-Bolar and McDowell made their choices in an educational system rife with inequalities, among them deeply unequal per-pupil financing and persistent school segregation. School districts have a way of turning a public good into a private good. Rich families enroll their kids in neighborhood schools, hoarding opportunity through boundary enforcement, zoning laws, real-estate prices, and redlining. The structure of education financing gives parents a sense of entitlement and ownership: They pay for schools with their mortgages and property taxes, and therefore the school is theirs. (Of course, the math is more complicated than that.) In-boundary parents are often the initiators of boundary-hopping investigations; they believe that out-of-boundary parents are stealing.
Boundary-hopping does stress school districts, crowding classrooms and frustrating administrators. It also diverts much-needed funding from lower-performing schools, in some cases. But a good public education is meant to belong to everyone. And as a single mother in school herself, Williams-Bolar could not have made rent, let alone purchased a home, in a tony suburban school district.
Rich families have the option of pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them in private or parochial ones, as well as the option of moving to a better district. Rich families have the option of coaching their kids through standardized tests, and helping ensure they get into gifted and talented programs and specialized schools. Rich families have the resources to investigate what different public schools offer, and to game lottery and ranked-choice enrollment systems. Later on in their kids’ lives, rich families have the ability to provide tax-deductible gifts to colleges to get mediocre students accepted. Rich families sometimes skirt the law, too — cheating on standardized tests, making up their kids’ athletic accomplishments, paying bribes.
Poor families have far fewer options—boundary-hopping, for many, is one of the few ways to get into a better school district. Moreover, given that low-income families often have unstable housing situations and use intergenerational child-care structures, what might seem like enrollment fraud to a school district might feel like nothing more than school choice to a parent. Signing her kids up for school with her dad just made sense, Williams-Bolar stressed.
For that decision, she ended up in jail, even though she had never been arrested, let alone convicted of a crime, she said. She sobbed for hours when she arrived in her holding cell. She lost 15 pounds, unable to bring herself to eat. “When I was walking into general population, I walked through the door and smelled a smell—not like a dead rat, or mold, or this or that,” she said. “No, it had its own distinctive smell. And it smelled like sin. I said that to the sheriff, and she told me: ‘You’re not the first person who has told me that.’”
She was never the same after that trauma, she told me. She spent years and years struggling with depression, shame, and regret. Her father ended up dying in prison on unrelated charges. Her girls ended up back in the struggling Akron schools. A few months after she was released, then-Governor John Kasich provided her with partial clemency, reducing her felonies to misdemeanors.
Never the same, she still pushes forward. Williams-Bolar has become an advocate for social justice, criminal-justice reform, and public education. She speaks at churches, colleges, and high schools. She lobbies for states to lower penalties for parents engaging in boundary-hopping. And she works in the Akron public schools as a teacher’s assistant, helping kids with behavioral challenges.
“These kids have gone through so much,” she told me. “They’ve been in foster care. They’ve been abused at home. They have a parent in prison. I can talk to them and I can tell them my background, and that resonates with some of these kids to the point where they will build a bond with me. You don’t understand what that does for me—to see that I can break through to a kid who’s reserved, and has all these issues going on.”
Both Felicity Huffman and Kelley Williams-Bolar, from their very different vantage points, tried to take advantage of a system they knew to be unfair. In both cases, the real scandal is what is legal, and the real victims the kids deprived of opportunity by dint of their family’s bank account and address.