When the School across Town Is Just out of Reach
by Halley Potter
Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law to get her kids into a good school. Last month, the 40 year-old single mother and resident of Akron, Ohio, was convicted of two felony charges for falsifying documents in order to send her two daughters to school in the nearby suburban district Copley-Fairlawn. The story has caused uproar in the Akron community and drawn national attention. Conservative commentator Kyle Olson has called her story a "Rosa Parks moment in education." Kevin Huffman echoed this sentiment in a Washington Post op-ed, while the Post's Valerie Strauss rejected it. But whether or not you think Williams-Bolar is a modern-day Rosa Parks, I suggest viewing the story another way: as an example of class segregation with the potential for a practical solution.
In Akron, Williams-Bolar's daughters would likely have attended high-poverty, low-performing schools. Based on her address and Akron's school attendance boundaries, Williams-Bolar "should" have sent her children to Schumacher Academy Elementary School, Perkins Middle School, or Buchtel High School. All three schools have high rates of poverty: 98 percent of students at Schumacher, 95 percent at Perkins, and 77 percent at Buchtel receive free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) (CCD public school data, 2008-2009 school year). All three are also struggling academically. During the 2009-2010 school year, Schumacher and Perkins each failed to meet state standards on all but one of the state's achievement tests. Buchtel failed in all subject areas and grade levels. In Ohio state's school rating system, Perkins and Buchtel are both classified under "Academic Watch," just one rung away from the bottom of the six categories, "Academic Emergency."
Copley-Fairlawn City Schools, however, are uniformly low-poverty and high-performing. The district was awarded the top state designation, "Excellent with Distinction," and all five schools in the district (three elementary, one middle, and one high school) met state requirements for all subjects and grade levels. In addition, no school in Copley-Fairlawn has more than 16 percent of students eligible for FRPL (CCD public school data, 2008-2009 school year).
Legal issues aside, it's no wonder that Williams-Bolar fled her neighborhood schools in favor of the high-achieving Copley-Fairlawn district.
It's also no mystery why this achievement disparity exists or what we can do about it. In her response to Williams-Bolar's story, Education Week's Nancy Flanagan pinpoints the problem: "We've had economically segregated public schools forever, supported by tax policy and enrollment zones." Flanagan frames the solution in broad strokes—"better schools for all kids"—but we should be more specific than that. Socioeconomic segregation is a problem we can tackle.
Currently, nearly 80 school districts across the country employ socioeconomic status in some form when making student assignments. Often this process involves assuring equitable socioeconomic balance across the district, so that you don't end up with some schools that have 25 percent of students eligible for FRPL and others with 99 percent, as is the case in Akron.
However, in a high-poverty district like Akron, where 69 percent of students are FRPL-eligible, balancing income distribution within the district is not enough to break up concentrations of poverty. Beating socioeconomic segregation in these cases requires partnering with neighboring school districts.
In Improving on No Child Left Behind, Jennifer Jellison Holme and Amy Stuart Wells highlight eight cities with "interdistrict plans": Boston; East Palo Alto, CA; Hartford, CT; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Rochester, NY; and St. Louis. In each of these plans, the state pays most of the expense for high-achieving suburban districts to educate low-income transfer students from urban schools.
The results from these cities are encouraging. Hosting districts receive the benefits of increasing diversity in their schools and promoting tolerance. The interdistrict plans in St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Rochester have all grown in popularity among suburban districts and residents. Survey data from Milwaukee showed that many students in schools using the transfer program reported having cross-race friends. And while the suburban community benefits socially, the transfer students also benefit academically. One early study on Hartford's Project Concern (now called Project Choice) showed that students who won a lottery and became transfer participants scored higher than those who lost in the lottery. More recent evidence from Hartford's Project Choice also shows that students in the program outperform their Hartford Public Schools peers.
If Williams-Bolar had lived in Hartford or Milwaukee, she might have legally sent her child to a high-performing suburban school. But it's not too late for Akron. The city is a good candidate for an interdistrict plan because it's bordered by multiple smaller, low-poverty, high-performing districts—not just Copley-Fairlawn, but also Revere Local, Woodridge Local, Cuyahoga Falls, Tallmadge City, Coventry Local, and Norton City.
As community leaders use Williams-Bolar's story to launch a discussion about education in their city, they would do well to look at the examples set by cities with interdistrict plans. Williams-Bolar's story is a reminder of our nation's educational woes, from the lack of educational choice to racial inequality. But it shouldn't just prompt protest. It should prompt change, beginning in Akron.