Education and School Choice, In The News

Williams-Bolar becomes new voice for school choice

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

The Akron mother whose residency dispute with the Copley-Fairlawn school district morphed into an unusual criminal conviction and an international media spectacle last year will step back into the spotlight this Sunday as a champion of school choice.

Kelley Williams-Bolar will join Michelle Bernard, a frequent guest commentator on national cable television news and radio shows, in Cleveland for a rally urging parents “to become foot soldiers for school choice.”

Bernard, who is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., said she followed Williams-Bolar’s case in the media and thought she would be a good example of a parent trying to get the best possible education for her child.

“I have been reading about Kelley’s case since she was first arrested,” Bernard said. “I just found the case to be absolutely fascinating and it’s not one of a kind.”

Williams-Bolar consistently said she was concerned about the safety of her neighborhood, not the quality of the Akron Public Schools, when she enrolled her daughters in the Copley-Fairlawn school district in 2006. The 70 pages of her testimony in the trial transcript never indicated she was seeking a better education.

But now Bernard says that Williams-Bolar has told her that she did have problems with the academic quality of her neighborhood school. She lived about two blocks from Schumacher elementary school in West Akron. On the 2005-2006 state report card, Schumacher was rated in Academic Watch, the second-lowest rating, and met only one of eight state standards.

Williams-Bolar did not want to be interviewed by the Akron Beacon Journal, but she told Bernard on Wednesday afternoon that she didn’t want to jeopardize her job with the Akron Public Schools, where she continues to work as an educational assistant at Buchtel High School, making $13.88 an hour.

“When all of this happened, it was her lifeline and she said did not feel she could publicly state what she thought about the academics at the school in her neighborhood,” Bernard said. “She said she was a nervous wreck, that this government job was her lifeline, and she did the best that she could to get through this.”

Daughter in private school

She said Williams-Bolar supports Ohio’s EdChoice scholarship program, which awards vouchers for children assigned to failing public schools to attend private school with public tax dollars. She has used the program for at least one of her daughters.

“She told me that her daughter is in private school now because she was able to get a voucher for her daughter to go to a better school,” Bernard said.

Williams-Bolar also is organizing an Ohio Parents Union, modeled after a similar group in California, that aims to counter the influence of teachers’ unions.

“There’s another group we’re working with in Connecticut, for example, that is developing a Connecticut Parents Union,” Bernard said. “I think what you’re going to see is parents on a state-by-state basis starting their own parents’ unions as a way to begin to develop the same sort of political clout that teachers’ unions have.”

‘Free market think tank’

Bernard said she has been described as a conservative, but she resists that label.

“We are a free market think tank, is how I typically describe it, whose mission is to make sure that the voices of women, ethnic and religious minorities are heard on the most important public policy debates of the day,” she said.

The news release announcing the rally claims that Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail for “stealing education.”

In January of 2011, a jury convicted Williams-Bolar of tampering with records, a third-degree felony, but she was not convicted of grand theft. One juror doubted her guilt on that charge, and Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh declined a retrial.

In September, Gov. John Kasich used his executive clemency authority to reduce the felony convictions to two first-degree misdemeanors.

Media attention

Bernard, a lawyer by training who worked briefly for the 2000 Bush-Cheney Presidential Inaugural Committee before founding her think tank, said she didn’t attend the trial and she hasn’t read the trial transcript.

“She was brought to my attention because of the big media attention that her case garnered,” Bernard said.

She said it’s hard to know what was going through Williams-Bolar’s mind at the time, but she knows today that Williams-Bolar believes all children deserve a quality education, no matter where they live.

“I take Kelley Williams-Bolar at her word and I take her where she is now,” Bernard said. “The same thing Kelley has told me, I’ve been hearing from women in low-income neighborhoods all over the country.”

The rally is at 4 p.m. Sunday at Trinity Outreach Ministries, 12002 Ashbury Road, in Cleveland. The rally also will be streamed live online at the think tank’s website: http://bernardcenter.org.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.

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