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Equal Access: Rosa Parks, Lite

Almost two decades ago, I drove across the state with a well-known leader of the state Chamber of Commerce, en route to a speaking engagement. The man was the embodiment of "straight arrow:" flag pin in suit coat lapel, hair sprayed into immobility and fluent in the language of capitalist sound bites. Although we didn't agree on lot, the conversation was friendly, and he was very knowledgeable about school policy issues.

We fell into a discussion about a policy that didn't exist at the time in our state. Both of us agreed was a good thing: public school choice. We talked about how things would be if parents had genuine options in choosing the best free public education for their kids, regardless of where those kids lived. He turned, grinned and uttered a phrase that I'm certain had never crossed his lips before: Free the people!

Valerie Strauss is currently taking considerable heat for suggesting that Ohio mom Kelly Williams-Bolar is not, in fact, a latter-day Rosa Parks, but a small-time cheater who got caught falsifying public information, albeit for a defensible reason. Most people would agree that the punishment and humiliation Williams-Bolar has suffered are totally out of whack for someone who was arguably just looking for a better deal for her kids. Aren't we all looking for a better--although legal--deal for our kids?

Seems like the right principle, but the wrong vehicle. We need to find a way to close the dangerous and growing gap between advantaged schools and dysfunctional schools without elevating creative dishonesty.

Rosa Parks' act of defiance was public, civil disobedience in response to discriminatory legislation. Kelly Williams-Bolar did not publicly demand equity for her children; she privately lied in an attempt to subvert an admittedly inequitable system. Her bold act was not her initial cheating--it was resisting and challenging authorities once she was caught. She has become a symbol of another kind of Tiger mom--one willing to be arrested and incarcerated for the sake of her children's education. Whether she set out to be that symbolic hero--or whether she was talked into it to advance a cause--is unclear.

The solution sought by Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement was, in part, a change to discriminatory laws. What's the solution to Kelly Williams-Bolar's grievance? Better schools for all kids, not just those who win a lottery or have the good fortune to live in the right neighborhood.

How to get that? It's not just a matter of "free the people" choice policies-- it's a change of minds and hearts. We've had economically segregated public schools forever, supported by tax policy and enrollment zones. If there's a choice between excellence and equity, parents choose excellence. There has to be something for everyone in building a truly equitable system, or it will never be built. When open access to quality education requires fraud, we're all in trouble.

Is Kelly Williams-Bolar the next Rosa Parks? No, but her story is important, a cautionary tale about what happens when the system denies opportunity and reinforces inequality. Williams-Bolars's was only one of about 40 families crossing ethical boundaries in the desire to access good schools for their kids.

That's a red flag, waving.

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