College Bribery Scandal Shows How School Systems Set Up Poor, Minority Students To Fail

Those without a financial leg up have a much harder time succeeding.


Peter Muller Cultura/Newscom

She wanted her daughters to go to a good school, and she broke the law to make it happen.

I'm not talking about Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman, the Hollywood stars who made headlines for writing fat checks to sneak their children into elite universities. I'm referring to Kelley Williams-Bolar, who, in 2011, used her father's address to ensure her kids attended a higher-quality school outside her Akron, Ohio, school district. Williams-Bolar served nine days of a five-year prison sentence, received three years probation, and had to complete 80 hours of community service.

"I did this for them, so there it is," she told ABC. "I did this for them." According to officials, her crimes equated to stealing an education: Prior to her indictment, they demanded she give the city $30,000 in taxes, which she refused to do.

The difference between these cases isn't just the presence of celebrity. Huffman and Loughlin had great options for their kids, and thought they could buy even better ones; Williams-Bolar was trying to protect her kids from only (terrible) option available to them.

According to NBC News investigative reporter Tom Winter, it's unlikely the famous actresses will serve any jail time. There's nothing necessarily objectionable about that—society stands to gain very little from locking them away, since they pose no danger.

The disparity between these two worlds tells us something about education in America. Poverty-stricken families are not only unable to bribe coaches or proctors, but many also can't afford legal leg-ups, like extracurriculars that require a fee or private test prep courses. Americans without access to wealth are forced to rely on the public education system, and often find themselves trapped in failing schools solely because of their zip code.

Because schools tend to be mirror images of their neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods generally beget poor schools, with fewer resources and less effective teachers. And as "rich vs. underprivileged" is often synonymous with "white vs. nonwhite," a minority-heavy school is a predictive marker that achievement outcomes will be lower, according to the Brookings Institution. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, in schools with heavy Black and Hispanic populations, 75 to 100 percent were also eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. These students start life behind, and seldom acquire the financial means to close in on their wealthier peers.

There is no policy mechanism for "fixing" the wealth gap, but the educational gap is ripe for disruption. Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, notes that research studying the link between racial segregation and school choice options is promising. Out of the 10 empirical studies conducted on the matter thus far, nine have shown a positive impact on decreasing school segregation. The remaining study showed a negligible impact.

Of Louisiana's public voucher program, for instance, Forster highlights that students who take advantage of school choice "reduce segregation in both the public schools and the private schools," and that such transfers "move both public and private schools closer to the racial composition of the surrounding metropolitan area."

Another study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University, found that New York City's voucher program increased the college enrollment rate among African American students by 24 percent. In tandem with Forster's research, that lends credence to the idea that more options can help desegregate the school system, and produce better outcomes for the ones who need them most.

For now, though, people like Williams-Bolar are locked in a cycle that they can't break out of, so long as educational opportunity turns solely on what house you can buy—or who you can bribe.