CHAVOUS: The new Rosa Parks

A parent risking jail for better schools signals a time for choice

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For years, many of us in the education reform movement have believed that the fight to ensure all children equal access to a high-quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. If that is indeed the case, the civil rights movement has found a new “Rosa Parks” - Kelley Williams-Bolar.

Ms. Williams-Bolar is a single mother of two daughters in Ohio who was sent to jail for 10 days for using her father’s address to get her kids in a better school. She wanted her daughters to get a good education. But the city wanted to make an example of her. Ms. Williams-Bolar, like struggling parents all over the country, was desperate to have her children attend a quality school. Was she legally wrong? Technically, yes. Was she morally right? Absolutely. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Similar to Rosa Parks, Ms. Williams-Bolar may be just the person to demonstrate the need for quality options today for all children, particularly those from low-income communities.

She is not alone. Several weeks ago, parents in Compton, Calif., took advantage of a new parent-trigger law - which allows parents to petition and shut down failing schools - and effectively closed a school in their neighborhood that for years had failed to educate their children. Standing in front of the school she was helping to shut down, parent leader Ismenia Guzman said, “Us parents, we care. I don’t want our kids struggling in poor schools.” This unprecedented action sent a clear, unambiguous message to the school district: Either fix our school or we will put you out of business.

Clearly, something is happening in the push to reform American schools, and it is not going away. Slowly, but ever so surely, parents are injecting themselves into the discussion. For years, policymakers, visionary legislators, entrepreneurial school leaders and self-proclaimed education reformers have been fighting for changes in our education system. They all bemoan the fact that the long-standing achievement gap between children of color and white children is not being closed and that U.S. schoolchildren are falling behind the rest of the world in educational outputs. And while many of us who have been doing this work for a long time see positive signs of change with the advancement of charter schools, the education policy of President Obama and efforts being waged in many states, the catalytic moment signaling real change just hasn’t occurred. Until now.

It is increasingly clear that parents are fed up.

The parent-trigger law in California and the recent circumstances involving Ms. Williams-Bolar show that the Berlin Wall representing poor education in this nation may finally be coming down. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity for all. How can we in good conscience continue with a system that forces parents to break the law to try to educate their children?

The answer is to give parents an array of education options. I have seen over and over that parents armed with knowledge and know-how will stop at nothing to find the right school for their children. From charter schools in New York to voucher programs in New Orleans and Milwaukee and other programs across the country, parents’ desire and drive to improve the lives of their kids is universal.

Kelley Williams-Bolar reminds us that education reform, like civil rights, won’t come easy. We all must be willing to fight for the rights of our children to be educated in quality schools - and even go to jail, if necessary.

Kevin P. Chavous is the board chairman for both the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Democrats for Education Reform. He is also a former member of the D.C. Council.

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