The Fractious Politics of Education (III): Local Control

Today, we start with the story of Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman charged with larceny and conspiracy in defrauding the Norwalk, Connecticut, public schools.  Ms. McDowell, facing conspiracy for possessing marijuana and crack cocaine in another case, allegedly used a false address to enroll her 5 year old in school.   Presently, McDowell faces the possibility of up to 20(!?)! years in prison, as well as being forced to pay $16,000 in restitution for the schooling her child wasn’t entitled to.

Parents trying to defraud public schools, particularly better public schools, isn’t all that unusual; criminal prosecution is.  McDowell is the only one of 27 parents accused of cheating to get their kids in school facing court charges.  Her case has become a cause for education activists. has launched a petition campaign against prosecution that, at this moment, has more than 17,000 on-line signatures.

Kelley Williams-Bolar in court

Would a judge actually send a parent trying to look out for her kid to jail?  Yes.  Earlier this year, an Ohio judge sent teacher’s aid Kelley Williams-Bolar to jail for ten days after finding that she had falsified residency records to that her children could attend better schools.  The judge suspended the rest of the five year sentence.

Ms. Bolar-Williams, studying to be a teacher (a prospect that is now up in the air), was well aware of the vast inequality that characterize public schools in Ohio (and the rest of the United States), and wanted the best for her children–better than she could pay for.  She thought the Copley-Fairlawn district provided better and safer schools than those where she lived.

Her case has also become a cause.  Moms Rising organized a campaign for her pardon, and Governor John Kasich asked the Ohio parole board to consider expunging her record.

Could these dramatic cases become the spark that starts a national movement for real school reform?  Sometimes a visible injustice does exactly that.  Think of what the civil rights movement did with Rosa Parks.  But Williams-Bolar and McDowell weren’t looking to change the world, just the prospects for their children.  And the middle-class education-oriented people who often support social justice campaigns are worried about their own children.

These dramatic and disturbing cases underscore the obstacles education reformers face in America.  Parents looking out for their kids try to move into communities which offer the best public schools they can afford.  (This usually means higher local property taxes and higher real estate costs.  In California, it means extensive private fundraising.)  My parents did, siting off reputation; these days, we have test scores as well.

Parents want to get what they pay for, which generally includes better facilities, more diverse offerings and activities, and smaller class size.  Students from outside the district aren’t paying their share, and their presence, school administrators explain, strains the schools.  Does an additional child or two in a class really make that much of a difference?  How about nine?  How about when class size rockets from 20-31 residents (a result of school budget crises)?

These numbers are from my daughters’ first grade classes in Irvine, California–which has a reputation for very good schools.)  Every year, Irvine families must demonstrate residency for each child; it feels more frequent than that.

As Americans, we have an interest in providing a good education to all children.  Actually, it’s probably even more important for children whose parents are less competent (homelessness and crack cocaine are hardly educational advantages).

As parents, and as residents of local communities, we want to preserve what we can for our children and our neighbors, fighting against a tide of decline sweeping the state or country.

In Beverly Hills, local parents started an emergency fundraiser to prevent 11 layoffs in the district.  They raised more than a half-million dollars in a week, and the effort continues.  In Irvine, as in other affluent communities, a (private) public school foundation raises money to provide programs that the state no longer does.  They don’t criticize, or even mention, local legislators who vote against plans to fund the schools.  After all, opponents of fair taxation might make generous contributions.  And parents who can hire tutors and pay fees for special programs, so that their children don’t face the full consequence of our collective choices.

In effect, a drive to protect the local school works against adequately educating all our children.

Written by David S. Meyer

May 13, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Posted in uncategorized

10 Responses

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  1. this is very sad – i actually have some familiarity with this issue of “residency fraud” from my own high school days. I am from Cupertino, CA and attended Monta Vista High School. Monta Vista has an API of 945 (for 2010) and graduating classes usually send 2 or 3 score to each UC and then one or two to each ivy league or other prestigious private. i knew some classmates whose parents were renting rooms out to random kids who paid for the address, i knew of people from low income families who lived in tiny 1 or 2 bedroom apartments so they could attend my high school, with the parents scraping and praying for graduation day so they could move out and start saving and living again. charter schools are often criticized for not accepting all students, but it seems like the case of residency fraud in places like Irvine and Cupertino highlights great problems with inequality in American society which are more often ignored



    May 13, 2011 at 8:52 pm

  2. No substantive comment here, just … wow…i had no idea you could go to jail for trying to go to a different school. This is up there with the resurrection of debtor jails.


    orgtheory reader

    May 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm

  3. The causes are co-mingled. Tax-based funding is one factor: from each according… We all pay in; we all take out. That model fails every time it is tried.

    Tax-based funding means that if you want some other school, you pay separately for that though paying for a public system that you do not use. This is an old problem, known well to Catholics, often on the left-hand side of the income bell curve.

    Compensation for teachers is independent of outcome. It is hard enough to measure such performance – standardized testing is of limited value – but even when and as some teachers are clearly more skilled than others, they are not rewarded for that. Thus, parents choose good schools or good systems but not good teachers.

    You cannot have your child with a good 5th grade teacher this year and different (better) 6th grade teacher next year. You certainly cannot pick this music teacher here and that art teacher there and this other science teacher elsewhere. Education comes as a package without choice, as if driving through McD’s once made them your provider for all meals for the whole family.

    (The problem of trying to be a good teacher in an untenable situation is another one of those co-mingled factors. The teacher cannot be here from 9-11 AM and there from 12-2 PM and certainly not anywhere from 6-8 PM. The teacher cannot choose to experiment on their own or to offer anything much that is different. Standardized tests have defined the educational goals.)

    Consumers have no choice. You are assigned a school. The only ways around are as above, such moving into a geography you otherwise would not, or breaking the law.

    And it is law. No one is sent to jail for choosing Wendy’s over McD, or the Organic Co-op.

    Parents need the schools as babysitters because both parents work. In addition, children are not allowed to work, even if they preferred to. Of course – back to the law, again – children are legally required to be in school. — Not just any school, but a school of the State’s approval. And only available on the days and hours chosen not by the parents and teachers as consumers and providers.

    There may be no way to solve all of these problems at once. Completely ridding education of government ownership would take a paradigm shift. And it is not clear that a Ford or Chevrolet is better than a Peugeot or Volvo, though we are pretty sure that a Honda or Toyota is. Even if that is arguable (as it may be), the choice is not to be made by one political agency which assigns automobiles based on the neighborhood of the driver.


    Michael E. Marotta

    May 14, 2011 at 12:57 pm

  4. MM: Education is not hamburger and cars. Your model says it is ok if the children of people without money get no school at all. Education is not a one-shot purchase. Catholic schools were economically viable for working class folks when nuns taught school for free and are having the same problems coming up with education for poor kids as public schools are under a staffing model that involves paying the staff. Your beloved private schools would be just as quick to call the cops if a low income person tried to enroll her children without paying tuition.

    That said, I am sure it is only low income Black mothers who get sent to jail for trying to get their kids a better education.



    May 14, 2011 at 8:29 pm

  5. Three small points: 1) I think the incredible variation between neighboring public schools is peculiar to the US (at least among rich schools), a result of a local control (and funding) tradition. ->Please tell me if I’m wrong about this.

    2) I agree about differences between education and hamburgers. It’s not only that the consumers of education don’t have access to all options (cost), but they are also likely to have a good sense of what each option is (recall the students marching to protect their crappy school from educational reform), and what it’s worth.

    3) We all have an interest in a well-educated populace, whereas I don’t care much, really, about the quality of the burgers you consume.


    David S. Meyer

    May 15, 2011 at 2:15 am

  6. yes Mr. Marotta, let us treat education as a commodity like hamburgers or cars. because who cares if the poor cannot afford schooling? that is no concern to the businessman.

    your observation about “tax-based funding” failing also ignores this thing called history. for some reason, from the 1950’s to the 1970’s tax-based funding worked quite well for public education, and public education in the US did a pretty good job of making sure that there was robust income mobility in this country – or at least it didn’t get in the way.

    tax-based funding also worked great by funding things like the GI Bill, which allowed millions of white male WWII veterans to get mortgages at extremely low rates and free or near-free college education – thus moving millions of families into the middle class.

    in order to make totalizing statements like “tax-based funding never works,” you need to have a very selective memory of history – the kind of selective memory that is quite prevalent among the true believers, both libertarian and leninist.



    May 15, 2011 at 8:03 am

  7. Also, Mr. Marotta, you ignore the fact that this “paradigm-shifting” thinking about letting markets work – or more like letting the business-mentality take over, which is distinct from markets, really – has been going on since the late 70’s, from the nomination of Paul Volcker by Carter to the Reagan Revolution. There is this thing called neoliberalism that has been the dominant mode of thought within government policy, starting with the Reaganites and Thatcherites. This “paradigm shift” which you are so eager to see yet haven’t noticed has already taken effect since the 80’s has done real great for all of us.



    May 15, 2011 at 8:05 am

  8. Even teasing apart “public funding” requires some thought about the consequences. Largely, local schools are paid for with property taxes. Thus, some are funded better than others. That is easily claimed as a causal factor, but parental involvement seems to be a better predictor of pupil performance.

    Added to that, state and federal governments generally collect and redistribute moneys, but the formulas do not include the children or their parents as factors, but rather “districts” – which in the case of small polities means “schools.”

    Then there is the State Lottery. Touted as a funding for education, it allows the poor (who play) to subsidize the schools of the rich (who do not).

    The GI Bill is a suggested model. However it was awarded to veterans who survived a war. And not all took advantage of it. And many who did went to the good paying jobs of their time in defense industries and other corporations from which perspectives they resisted civil rights and encouraged the war in Viet Nam. Just to say, while they clearly earned their benefits, their uses of them were individualized and not predictably aligned with progressive politiics. Education many only reinforce existing beliefs.

    All in all, the problems are many, intertangled and not easy traced or fixed.

    The immediate injustice here is just one example of what happens when choice and responsibility are denied.


    Michael E. Marotta

    May 16, 2011 at 11:30 pm

  9. @Michael Marotta.

    “The problems are many, intertangled, and not easy traced or fixed.”

    exactly. there is no blanket “tax-based funding never works” or “the free market is a failure.” sometimes taxation, regulation, govt. intervention work, sometimes not. sometimes markets work, sometimes not.

    I also agree with you that “choice and responsibility” must not be denied. But what is it that we mean by “choice” and “responsibility”? Because much of what is defined as “choice” by the so-called “education reformers” in this country is a joke. Charter schools, vouchers, etc. have not really been shown to give poor children and families in improverished neighborhoods a greater amount worthy options. Mostly, the process of education reform so far is:

    1) mandate testing.
    2) the tests give results which everyone already knows, i.e. the rich neighborhoods tend to have decent schools and the poor neighborhoods poor ones.
    3) the “bad” schools in poor neighborhoods are punished by being shut down and in its place is a charter school. a few hundred of the students from the shut-down students get to go to the charter school, which may or may not be an improvement over the old one, and the rest are shunted off to public schools in neighboring areas. perhaps they’re given vouchers to “have their choice” of those private schools, which will be several bus-rides or metro-rail transfers away.

    The current popular debate on education reform in America treats poor academic performance and education outcomes as a CAUSE, not an EFFECT. If you go and visit the poor-performing schools in person, you find in the vast majority of cases that the schools are merely reflections of bigger local community problems which are being ignored: poverty, hunger, unemployment, lack of jobs, etc.

    But nopes, the media narrative has decided that nothing is to be done about unemployment or poverty – that’s the fault and responsibility of those poor brown people – and we must blame everything on those lazy teachers (even though all the education scholars have shown that the problem is not that we can’t get rid of bad ones so much as keep good ones, and that the teachers that stay are woefully underpaid and over-worked).

    So we shut down the bad public schools, promote “choice,” and meanwhile the neighborhoods that the “bad schools” are in continue to rot. Problem solved!

    But yes, I agree with you that many tax policies tend to be a subsidization of the rich by the working classes. However, most of what passes for “choice,” “reform,” and “holding people accountable” in this country just amounts to stomping those same beleaguered working class people in the face.



    May 17, 2011 at 1:16 am

  10. As for the GI Bill, yes it was not universally taken advantage of, but it was taken advantage of at a scale large enough to push many thousands if not tens of thousands of veterans (and their families) into the middle class: about 50% of WWII veterans took advantage of the free education and subsidized mortgages.

    However, an examination of the history of the GI Bill does show a strange discrepancy: few or no black veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill post-WWII. Then we notice that a disproportionately high number of black WWII-vets are dishonorably discharged, meaning they can’t claim GI Bill benefits.

    I leave the implications of these historical facts to the reader…



    May 17, 2011 at 1:20 am

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