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The structure of education financing gives parents a sense of entitlement and ownership: They pay for schools with their mortgages and property taxes, and therefore the school is theirs. Of course, the math is more complicated than that. In-boundary parents are often the initiators of boundary-hopping investigations; they believe that out-of-boundary parents are stealing.

Boundary-hopping does stress school districts, crowding classrooms and frustrating administrators. It also diverts much-needed funding from lower-performing schools, in some cases. But a good public education is meant to belong to everyone.

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And as a single mother in school herself, Williams-Bolar could not have made rent, let alone purchased a home, in a tony suburban school district. Rich families have the option of pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them in private or parochial ones, as well as the option of moving to a better district.

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Rich families have the option of coaching their kids through standardized tests, and helping ensure they get into gifted and talented programs and specialized schools. Rich families have the resources to investigate what different public schools offer, and to game lottery and ranked-choice enrollment systems.

Poor families have far fewer options—boundary-hopping, for many, is one of the few ways to get into a better school district. Moreover, given that low-income families often have unstable housing situations and use intergenerational child-care structures, what might seem like enrollment fraud to a school district might feel like nothing more than school choice to a parent.

Signing her kids up for school with her dad just made sense, Williams-Bolar stressed.


For that decision, she ended up in jail, even though she had never been arrested, let alone convicted of a crime, she said. She sobbed for hours when she arrived in her holding cell. She lost 15 pounds, unable to bring herself to eat.

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And it smelled like sin. She was never the same after that trauma, she told me. She spent years and years struggling with depression, shame, and regret.

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Her father ended up dying in prison on unrelated charges. Her girls ended up back in the struggling Akron schools. A few months after she was released, then-Governor John Kasich provided her with partial clemency , reducing her felonies to misdemeanors. Never the same, she still pushes forward.

Williams-Bolar has become an advocate for social justice, criminal-justice reform, and public education. She speaks at churches, colleges, and high schools. She lobbies for states to lower penalties for parents engaging in boundary-hopping. They have a parent in prison.

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I can talk to them and I can tell them my background, and that resonates with some of these kids to the point where they will build a bond with me. Both Felicity Huffman and Kelley Williams-Bolar, from their very different vantage points, tried to take advantage of a system they knew to be unfair. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic.

Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic , where she covers economic policy. Huffman was ordered to report in six weeks to a federal Bureau of Prisons facility that has yet to be chosen.

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In a statement released by a spokesman after the hearing, Ms. I have always been prepared to accept whatever punishment Judge Talwani imposed. I broke the law. I have admitted that and I pleaded guilty to this crime. There are no excuses or justifications for my actions. Prosecutors have charged 51 people in the expansive admissions case, including coaches and others, and 15 of the 34 parents charged have pleaded guilty.

In the cases of some other parents who have pleaded guilty in the case, prosecutors are seeking as much as 15 months of incarceration.

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They asked for a comparatively lighter sentence — one month — for Ms. Huffman in part, they said, because she paid less than many of the other parents and because she chose not to include her younger daughter in the scheme. Besides the cheating on tests, some parents are accused of conspiring to bribe college coaches to pass their children off as athletic recruits in sports they often did not play.

Huffman was not the only Hollywood celebrity charged in the case. She has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors had raised the cases of Ms. Williams-Bolar, the black mother from Ohio, and the Atlanta educators, to argue that fairness required sentencing Ms. Huffman and the other parents in this case to at least some period of incarceration. But some defense lawyers involved in those cases questioned that logic. Williams-Bolar in successfully seeking clemency in her case, said that there were indeed disparities in the justice system. Similarly, lawyers who represented educators charged in the Atlanta test cheating scandal said that the sentences given to some of the defendants in that case were excessive. Evans was sentenced to one year in prison; her case is currently on appeal.

Rubin said.