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Kelley just wanted to send her daughters to a better school. She ended up in jail.

With everyone talking about Felicity Huffman over the past week, there’s another name that keeps popping up alongside hers: Kelley Williams-Bolar.

Both are American women sentenced to jail for trying to give their children better educational opportunities. But their stories are very different.

Acclaimed actress Huffman was ordered to spend 14 days behind bars after pleading guilty to paying $15,000 to have her daughter Sophia’s standardised test results corrected, to improve her options when it came to college.

Watch: There are two types of mums when it comes to the school list. Post continues after. 

Video by MMC

As for Williams-Bolar, she was a single mum living in public housing in Akron, Ohio, when she committed her crime in 2009. She had recently left her abusive husband and was attending uni and working as a teacher’s aide, with the aim of becoming a teacher herself. Her daughters Kayla and Jada went to the local public schools. But Williams-Bolar wasn’t happy with them. One had mould, a collapsing ceiling, unruly students and out-of-date textbooks. The academic results weren’t good. On top of that, both her daughters were being bullied.

Williams-Bolar’s father, Edward Williams, often looked after Kayla and Jada at his house, and Williams-Bolar had been spending time there herself, especially after her house was burgled. Her father lived in a district with better schools. Williams-Bolar pulled her daughters out of their schools and enrolled them in a new school, using her dad’s address.

“That school… they had acres of land,” she told The Atlantic. “They had greenhouses! It was so fabulous – science and everything else too.”

But before long, Williams-Bolar got the feeling she was being followed. She was. It was an investigator hired by the school district, looking for proof that she lived outside the district boundaries. Williams-Bolar and her father were charged with felonies related to the falsification of records and the theft of public education.

They fought the charges. But Williams-Bolar was convicted and given two five-year sentences, to be served concurrently. She was ordered to spend 10 days in jail.

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According to The Atlantic, “boundary hopping”, which is what Williams-Bolar did, is common in the US, with one survey in California suggesting that up to 12 percent of families are doing it. But the kids who get kicked out of schools for boundary hopping, and the parents who get charged for it, tend to be non-white and low-income – just like Williams-Bolar.

After serving her sentence, Williams-Bolar struggled with depression. But she’s continued to work as a teacher’s aide and has become an advocate for social justice.

When asked about the Huffman case by TV station WKYC, Williams-Bolar said, “Her 14 days being fair… I cannot be the judge of that, and I wouldn’t judge her for that”.

So what’s the situation here in Australia? Well, there are certainly plenty of parents prepared to lie about where they live to get their kids into their choice of public school.

In Perth, some parents have used grandparents’ addresses on enrolment documents. Others have gone so far as to buy a property in the catchment area of a school with a good reputation, then leave that property vacant.

In Sydney, school staff have door-knocked addresses to check that students live where they claim to. In one case, seven families had all given the same address when enrolling. Principals can kick students out of school if enrolments are based on false information.

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, some schools are paying investigators to check students’ addresses. They trail their targets and snap incriminating photos. Other schools use real estate software programs to check if students live where they say they do.

There have been prosecutions in Queensland. In 2016, a single mum appeared in Toowoomba Magistrates Court charged with fraud after giving a false address to enrol her son in school. Her lawyer told the court that she was trying to stay one step ahead of a former partner. She was fined $1000, with the magistrate saying it was the second such case he’d seen in a month.

A spokesperson for Queensland’s Department of Education tells Mamamia that when parents sign the “application for student enrolment” form, they’re acknowledging that the information supplied is true and correct.

“Schools are obliged to act on complaints or allegations of dishonesty, such as providing false information about a prospective student’s principal place of residence,” the spokesperson added. “This constitutes fraud and may be reported to the police.

“The Department of Education supports decisions taken by principals to ensure that fraudulent applications do not impact on legitimate enrolment processes for their school.”

The spokesperson says it’s about making sure that schools have the capacity to deal with population growth in their catchment, and that students get high-quality education at their local school.

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