Back in January, Akron, Ohio, mother Kelley Williams-Bolar became the poster child for ending zip code education and expanding school choice when she was convicted of what can only laughingly be called stealing education. Williams-Bolar would end up spending 10 days in jail for placing her two daughters in the relatively high-performing (and, more important to her, safe) Copley-Fairlawn school district (where few of the black students drop out) instead of keeping them in the woeful, more-dangerous Akron district (whose Balfanz rate for young black men and women, respectively, is 62 percent and 76 percent) in which her family resided. The conviction jump-started the much-needed discussion over expanding inter-district public school choice and forced a new discussion about ending zip code education practices that condemn poor and minority children to the worst American public education offers (and keeps middle-class families from improving their own options).
Ten months later, Williams-Bolar is taking her place alongside parents such as Gwen Samuel, Matt Prewett and Hanya Boulos to launch the nation’s fifth parents union. The Ohio Parents Union is still in its infancy, and according to Williams-Bolar in an e-mail to Dropout Nation, still working with families to map out a full agenda. But Williams-Bolar’s new group is already getting help from the Samuel and the Connecticut Parents Union; Samuel has already introduced Williams-Bolar to the growing network of Parent Power activists and to Whitney Tilson, whose e-mails reach into the core of the overall school reform movement. It will be interesting to see if Terry Ryan and the folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (which was originally based in the Buckeye State and is a major charter school authorizer there) will team up with the new group on the kind of on-the-ground efforts for which Dropout Nation has advocated (and Fordham’s research czar, Mike Petrilli, acknowledged was necessary).
There will be plenty for Williams-Bolar to tackle. Forget moving to make the Buckeye State take full responsibility for education funding (and thus transforming school dollars into a voucher-like system in which kids can attend any school within the state). The efforts to overhaul how teachers in the state are recruited, trained, and compensated — especially in light of last week’s defeat of the collective bargaining ban — means that school reformers will have to be more-aggressive and savvy in their efforts. Parent Power groups such as Williams-Bolars could immediately strike a blow for families by following the course of parents in L.A. who are suing the school district there in order to force the use of student test data in teacher evaluations.
Another would be to require more-accurate school data that shows the performance and safety of schools in their communities. Right now, Ohio’s school data system is barely useful for families in any meaningful way. And pushing Ohio to enact a Parent Trigger law similar to those in California, Connecticut and Texas would go a long way in helping parents overhaul the very schools whose failures are at the epicenter of decaying communities.
Williams-Bolar can now help families like hers avoid the fate that befell her. And we need more parents like her taking power.