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American Felon Underscores Need for Education Reform

Author: 
Karthik Reddy

Kelley Williams-Bolar, an American mother of two from Akron, Ohio, now enjoys the distinction of having a felony conviction for want of a privilege enjoyed by her wealthier countrymen: the choice of where to send her children to school. Ms. Williams-Bolar falsified residency records in order to enroll her two daughters in the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn School District, an affluent district with one of the best schools in the area. Investigators hired by the school district uncovered the falsification and, after Ms. Williams-Bolar failed to reimburse the school for $30,000 in tuition costs incurred by her daughters’ attendance, an Ohio court sentenced her to nine days in prison.

Ms. Williams-Bolar’s actions were undoubtedly illegal and her fraudulent activities came at the cost of taxpayers in the Copley-Fairlawn district. Yet to ignore the reasons behind her crime would be to ignore the vast inequalities created by the stranglehold of teachers’ unions upon the American educational system and the lack of choice and competition that stifles the development of America’s youth and endangers the American meritocracy.

The American public education system, which has performed poorly when compared with other developed nations, has largely operated without competition and market incentives that would encourage better teaching and administration. Parents are forbidden from sending children to schools outside of the district, stifling competition among districts. Teachers unions, meanwhile, have resisted efforts to introduce merit-based pay or meaningful evaluation of teacher performance, resulting in a system in which poor performance is not permitted to be punished, nor is exceptional performance rewarded. The German system suffers from a similar problem, as those students who fail to reach the prestigious Gymnasium do not enjoy the choice to improve their education, as they do in other nations, such as Sweden. Permitting more charter schools, such as Michelle Rhee has done in Washington, DC, and allowing school vouchers, such as those implemented in Milwaukee and studied by Hoxby (2003), alleviate these barriers to market forces and would have permitted Ms. Williams-Bolar to improve her daughters’ prospects without incurring jail time.

Even more remarkable, Sahlgren (2010) recently found from research examining the Swedish education system, which uses a voucher model, that legal changes permitting for-profit schools improved student performance. Sahlgren found that while this benefit was generally statistically significant, it was strongest for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For-profit institutions do not currently have a role in the American or German educational systems, but appear to have tremendous potential for helping those most disadvantaged by the current state-run system in both countries. As both American and German policymakers rethink existing models for education in both countries, they should understand that excellence in education is best achieved by giving teachers and parents the same incentives and choices that govern markets. Competition among teachers and schools will benefit students, parents, and taxpayers alike on both sides of the Atlantic.