The tale of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a Ohio mother sentenced to jail on Jan. 19 and fined $30,000 for enrolling her daughter in an out-of-district school, has taken on a life of its own. Her story has sparked rallies, petitions and a robust national dialogue about educational equity. But it is more than an illustration of the egregious economic, geographic and racial inequities in our public education system. Williams-Bolar has become the poster parent for a very specific issue in the education-reform movement: parental involvement and choice.
Her story stands in stark contrast to the popular but wildly inaccurate narrative of low-income parents of color being uninterested in — and stubborn obstacles to — their children's education. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated (pdf) that low-income and minority parents strongly value education and higher achievement. The question is, what can engaged parents like Williams-Bolar do right now as the arduous reform process moves along?
The current Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes some parental-involvement policies focused on school-parent compacts and parent-teacher conferences. But many parents find these tools inadequate, and they are using more dramatic options.
Case in point: Two months ago, African-American and Latino parents at McKinley Middle School in Compton, Calif., pulled what is called the parent-trigger option — a law that forces districts to make radical changes at a school that has failed to meet its benchmarks for four years when at least 51 percent of parents sign a petition for reform. The McKinley School had 61 percent parental support to turn the school into a charter school.
Last year California was the first state to enact a law in which parents can choose the level and type of reform that they want: converting to a charter school, replacing the principal and staff, rebudgeting or even closing the school. Six other states have proposed similar policies since then. The federal government should take note.
The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides Congress and the administration with a clear opportunity to review existing parental-involvement provisions in the law. Currently, states must set aside a portion of their funds for family-engagement activities, and the Department of Education has proposed increasing that amount.
Funding is important, but parents have spoken loud and clear: We need a better national conversation with new ideas for parental involvement. Stories like Williams-Bolar's are more common than we care to admit, while cases like that of McKinley — parents using dramatic, effective policies — should be more common. And both accounts — examples of nonaffluent parents of color taking their children's education into their own hands — demonstrate two key principles that are instructive for education reform.
The first is that the process of designing policies around parental involvement should start with the assumption that all parents are invested in their children's learning and safety. Low-income and minority parents are often fierce advocates for their children's education and should be treated as such. And second, parents who feel that there are no other options will go to extreme measures to change their situation.
Federal and state governments must design policies that provide options for these parents to be active, productive and powerful agents of change. They deserve better than being stuck between a rock and a hard place. They deserve a voice.
Theodora Chang is an education-policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. Erica Williams, selected for The Root 100 in 2010, is the deputy director of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress that develops new ideas for an increasingly diverse America.