In the debate over school choice, it’s easy to overlook a mother’s fundamental need to create a safe environment for her child. But we could inform a more civil discourse over choices in education more generally and the fate of imprisoned Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar more specifically by reminding ourselves that many poor families aren’t just looking for better schools for their children, they need to find safe haven.
You could ask thousands of low-income families participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program why they chose the school they did, and many will respond that their decision was influenced by their desire to take their children out of harm’s way. Academics get lost in a child’s anxiety over what’s going to happen at the lockers during class break or on the route home from the schoolhouse. Defense attorney Kerry O’Brien, who represented Williams-Bolar at her trial, could have been speaking for many more when he told an Akron jury that gunfire and neighborhood violence drove his client to make a tough choice.
It is responsible, and ethical, public policy to consider this basic need for safety. When a young girl in northeast Florida named Denisha Merriweather spent much of her time in school brawling with her classmates and failing the third grade twice, it took her aging godmother, Johnell Jones, to intervene. Jones knew that other children harrassed her goddaughter daily and saw that, eventually, Denisha simply disengaged from her education. Jones lived in one of the poorest sections of inner-city Jacksonville, but the state of Florida empowered her with a tax credit scholarship for low-income families to find a school — even a faith-based private school — if that’s what she thought it took to turn her goddaughter around. When Denisha was in the sixth grade, Jones placed her in the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school that emphasizes structure and discipline. That was six years ago. Today, Denisha is halfway through her freshman year at the University of West Florida.
The inflexibility of a suburban Ohio school district that spent thousands investigating Williams-Bolar to unearth her true residency has led many pundits and activists to condemn the punishment of a mother whom they consider to be the next Rosa Parks. In a statement, the school choice advocacy organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, currently chaired by former D.C. councilman Kevin P. Chavous, said that Williams-Bolar faced trial and imprisonment “for pursuing a better educational option for her daughters,” adding:
Her children must, like thousands of other low-income students of color, endure a sentence of their own: consignment to unsafe, underperforming schools in close proximity to their homes, year after year. There is no justice here.”
It took a high-profile prosecution to remind us that, too often, impoverished families are desperate for options. Ms. Jones knew that Denisha could only succeed in a school that nurtured her. Our hope at redefinED is that a story like hers prevents another prosecution like Akron’s.