What do Victor Hugo's Les Misé rables and an African American single mother in Ohio have in common? Both faced gut-wrenching realities that sometimes cause law-abiding individuals to blur the lines between what's legal and what seems morally permissible. The shades of gray present both an interesting dilemma and a significant opportunity for Christians concerned about legal and educational justice in the U.S.

Les Misé rables is a familiar tale. Set in 19th-century France, the story's protagonist, Jean Valjean, is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister's seven destitute children. Valjean spends several years in prison for his crime. After his eventual release, the plot takes us through a complex story rooted in themes of social inequity, justice, mercy and fairness. We are caused to wrestle with whether or not Valjean's original sentence was just. After all, Valjean was simply trying to take care of his sister's starving children. The kids had no other apparent options and presumably would have starved to death. Should we grant leniency to Jean Valjean, given the circumstances?

Let's consider the modern-day story of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a single mom in Akron, Ohio. Williams-Bolar has three children, and she's raising them in Akron's public housing projects. Like most inner cities, in Akron quality schools are sparse, and the local neighborhood public schools are among the worst in the area. According to 2008-09 state data, only 48 percent of African American students scored at or above proficient in reading, and only 39 percent scored similarly in math.

Knowing the life-changing importance of a good education, Williams-Bolar made a decision to send her children to live with their grandfather in nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. Her children were never official residents of Copley-Fairlawn, so Kelley was breaking the law by using her father's address to send the children to Copley-Fairlawn. Last month, she was convicted on two felony charges for falsifying records and sentenced to 10 days in jail, 3 years of probation, and 80 hours of community service.

Adding to the tragic irony, Williams-Bolar is an assistant special-education teacher at an Akron school district high school and a student at the University of Akron, where she's one semester away from receiving her bachelor's degree and teaching certificate. Now that she has a felony conviction on her record the presiding Judge Patricia Cosgrove informed her, "You will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today." This mom was trying to do the right thing. She was working hard, balancing life as a struggling single mother, to get her college degree so she would have the means to move her children to a neighborhood with better educational opportunities. Now it appears that her efforts will have been in vain. Kelley, her children, and the students she would have served as a teacher will be penalized.

I've found that I can split the online reactions to this story into two camps. There are those who feel absolutely that this mom was in the wrong and "got what she deserved." On the flip side, the vast majority of others seem to feel that she was justified and shouldn't be punished. I find degrees of truth in both arguments.

According to school enrollment restrictions, this mother certainly did break the law. But ultimately I believe that an 'either-or' perspective on Williams-Bolar misses a deeper and more significant opportunity for reflection and societal change. I believe we should be asking ourselves a key question: Why do we create systems that force people to make dire ethical choices about basic human needs such food or a decent education? As a Christian, I believe God wants us to look at adverse and unjust situations in our society—such as educational inequity—and realize that we have the opportunity to truly make a positive impact.

My husband and I are fortunate to have wonderful, high-quality school options for our three children. We will likely never face the ethical choice Williams-Bolar had to make. But under parallel circumstances, would I make the same decision she did? Would I feel pressured to ensure my children got the best education possible, even if it meant bending the rules to do it? Honestly, I'm not sure. Williams-Bolar knows what we all know: The best way to ensure our children have an equal chance in life is by providing them with a quality education. She was willing to take a risk to make that happen.

As Christians, instead of passing judgment on Williams-Bolar and other moms in similar situations, we should focus our efforts on understanding why our nation's unequal public school system drives some parents to break the law to ensure their kids get a good education. And, more importantly, what can we do to help change our country's overall public education system so parents won't have to face such dire choices?

Here are a few suggestions of what people of faith can do to help end educational inequity:

  • Serve as a tutor or mentor at-risk students.
  • Support a school board candidate, or add your name to the ballot.
  • Encourage exceptional young people you know to become teachers, perhaps by joining Teach For America.
  • Sponsor an under-resourced school in your area serving high-poverty students.
  • Pray for God's guidance for our teachers and schools leaders.

Nicole Baker Fulgham is vice president of faith community relations for Teach for America. She reviewed the documentary Waiting for Superman for Christianity Today and was featured in the magazine's Who's Next profile.