In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar, a Black mother, was sentenced to 10 weeks in county jail for falsifying residency records to get her daughters into a safer school district. Following her sentencing hearing, she said, “It’s overwhelming. I’m exhausted. I did this for them, so there it is. I did this for them.” Williams-Bolar’s tragic story bubbled back to the surface in March 2019 after news broke about one of America’s largest college admissions scandals. Fifty people (33 of them parents) were charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigations for paying college prep instructors to forge answers for their children and bribing college athletic coaches to admit their children with athletic scholarships.
The faces of the scam, nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues,” were wealthy and famous actors, including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, and they paid between $200,000 and $6.5 million to guarantee their children would be admitted to the schools of their choosing. The lack of consequences bestowed on Huffman and Loughlin shows just how much white parents are allowed to get away with as they seek a better education for their children.
This month, Huffman submitted a letter to the judge overseeing her case explaining why she spent $15,000 to fake her daughter’s SAT scores: “In my desperation to be a good mother I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot.” Though she is famous, extremely wealthy, and white, Huffman still imagined a world in which her daughter wouldn’t be treated fairly by admissions counselors. And though white women overwhelmingly oppose measures like affirmative action, they’re the main beneficiaries of the program and they aren’t fighting for a place in college classrooms, despite white girls like Abigail Fisher trying to push that narrative. Huffman and other white, wealthy parents have a leg up, but they’re still dreaming up their children’s marginalization.
While those involved in “Operation Varsity Blues” were arrested, indicted, and are facing federal charges, the law still overwhelmingly protects wealthy parents who bend the rules for their children. From the private versus public school debate to boarding schools and charter schools—both of which have a hugely racialized origin—the structure of our schools, and the ways that white and Black students and parents experience the school system has always been imbued with racism. As late as 2016, schools are still being desegregated, even well-meaning teachers bring racism into the classroom, and school districts in general have a huge issue with both classism and racism. U.S. cities and towns are still so deeply segregated (and not on accident) that white, wealthy families are able to more easily provide their children with a strong educational foundation that Black students are less likely to have access to.
In July 2019, a ProPublica report found that wealthy families in Illinois have gone to the extreme of giving up custody of their children so they could qualify for need-based scholarships. Relinquishing custody allows the student to apply for need-based scholarships and grants that would be otherwise unavailable to them. According to the Wall Street Journal, the majority of families exercising this loophole have annual incomes of between $500,000 and $1 million. Again, wealth and whiteness are used to protect families who are gaming the system, while Black parents are penalized for either following the rules, or desperately trying to skirt them.
Antonia Darder, author of the 1991 book Culture and Power in the Classroom, writes in a 2014 article that despite their conservative origins, some teachers and parents of color were hopeful that charter schools would offer a less racist alternative to public schools. Sadly, though, that was not the case, “The autonomy, however, that many [people of color] thought would be found within charter school classrooms, for the most part, failed to materialize beyond the often repeated rhetoric,” Darder writes. “Therefore, despite all the grandiloquence of inclusion and diversity, a familiar resegregation ensued, raising necessary questions about the racializing and social class consequences of market-driven policies of school reform.” HBCUs have also been routinely criticized for being “racist,” have to pay more for loans than predominantly white institutions, and are currently pushing for federal funding in Congress to compensate for their lower endowments. It’s an uphill battle, and one that isn’t helped when white parents make themselves the face of the struggle for a better education.
Before Williams-Bolar was charged, the school demanded $30,000 in back tuition, but as she explains, “I don’t think they wanted money. They wanted me to be an example.” She’s right. When Black parents seek a better education for their children, they’re pushing past years and years of racist red tape and structural barriers, and they’re punished for it. But what about white parents? What happens when white legacy students are admitted solely because their parents donated large sums of money or sit on advisory boards? Both Williams-Bolar and Huffman—who was recently handed a 14-day sentence—just wanted to make it easier for their children to have a better education, but Williams-Bolar being punished is par for the course whereas Huffman’s level of fame and the extremity of her crime was what it took for a white mother to be held accountable.