Saturday, February 5, 2011

Marcia Alesan Dawkins: A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste—Except in Ohio

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste—Except in Ohio

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Kelly Williams-Bolar, an aspiring teacher and mother of two in Ohio, was sentenced Jan. 18 to 10 days in jail and put on three years’ probation after sending her children to school in a district in which they did not live. It began four years ago, when Williams-Bolar registered her daughters for school using her father’s address in a township nearby. She became desperate when her apartment in the projects was burglarized. “When my home got broken into, I felt it was my duty to do something else,” she explained.

After seven hours of deliberation Jan. 15, a jury convicted Williams-Bolar of two counts of tampering with court records. Williams-Bolar’s father, Edward L. Williams, was also charged with a fourth-degree felony of grand theft, in which the court calculated that the family defrauded the school system of $35,000. Apparently, in Ohio, public education is no longer a right—it is now a form of private property that can be stolen. When Williams-Bolar was unable to pay, she was indicted. She was released early last Thursday.

Adding insult to injury, it turns out that Williams-Bolar will have to find a new career path as well. “Because of the felony convictions, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today,” the judge said. “The court’s taking into consideration that is also a punishment that you will have to serve.” Williams-Bolar’s attorneys are preparing an appeal.

As news of Williams-Bolar’s conviction and punishment spread, many were horrified and outraged. Celebrities Danny Glover and Questlove spoke out in support of Williams-Bolar on Twitter and Tumbler, confessing that they’ve done the same thing and aren’t sorry about it. Along with many others, Glover and Questlove think it’s ludicrous that in 2011 someone can be jailed for demanding access to education. Didn’t we just hear the president tell us about the importance of quality education as it relates to the state of our union?

Clearly, the court is making an example out of Williams-Bolar. Prosecutors agree, saying “punishment or deterrent was needed for other individuals who might think to defraud the various school districts.” Of course, it’s easiest to make an example out of someone when she does not have the resources to fight back; Williams-Bolar is a single mother who struggles to make ends meet. It is likely that the same can be said for her school district, and that is why she chose a school with more resources for her children. In the midst of such a deep recession, it is hard to believe that a single mother such as Williams-Bolar is the real enemy of the state.

The court’s sharp focus on Williams-Bolar also allows it to ignore the historical and legal inequalities that created this problem in the first place. As the president mentioned in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, “we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” Williams-Bolar needed no reminding of these facts. She realized she needed to take action as a mother, and so she did what she could to ensure her daughters a quality education. This sentence practically guarantees that the social and economic circumstances that drove Williams-Bolar to action will not be resolved. The state of Ohio has effectively robbed her of the opportunity to pull herself up “by the bootstraps,” handing down a life sentence of poverty and underemployment.

Speaking as an educator, the punitive destruction of this woman’s teaching future is really the most outrageous offense. In this week’s State of the Union address, we heard our president talk about the need for people who recognize the importance of education to become teachers. He said: “Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.’ Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”

The president pleaded on behalf of the teaching profession and focused on the importance of education as the right of every citizen. If nothing else, this case makes clear that Williams-Bolar understands the power of education in creating a brighter future, so much so that she was proactive on behalf of her daughters and intended to repay the state by becoming a teacher herself. Obviously, the state of Ohio disagrees.

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