A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 02 2012

On Stealing an Education


You read it right: an education can be stolen. Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman from Bridgeport, recently pleaded guilty to first degree larceny for fraudulently using her babysitter’s address to enroll her 6-year-old son in the neighboring town of Norwalk. As a result, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison. She only wanted a better education for her son.

(The context is complicated by other factors. She was also arrested for dealing drugs. Both the larceny and drug charges were made together. This forced her into a plea bargain, and into a particular form called an Alford plea. Read more here and here.)

This case provides much food for thought. It’s particular relevant, given my most recent post:

I’m making my first foray into another sphere this summer. I’ll be working on housing/foreclosure litigation on behalf of low-income families at a legal services organization in Bridgeport, CT. I intend to serve my clients to the best of my abilities, but also to learn more about how housing–or the lack of it–in turn affects educational achievement. I think the experience will be particularly interesting given that Bridgeport’s school district ranks 161st out of CT’s 165 school districts.

I thought I’d focus on the educational aspect of the story: what was the state of affairs behind Ms. McDowell’s motivation to send her son to school in Norwalk? With my investigative hat on, I went onto School Digger and dug around. I compiled some basic data on three sets of CT elementary schools: (1) Bridgeport’s (2) Norwalk’s (3) CT’s top 10. There was a lot of data to play with, but I think this chart captures the situation well:

Here are some observations (putting aside the complications that Ms. McDowell’s homelessness created):

  • Practically all of Bridgeport’s elementary schools are worse than any of Norwalk’s schools–and those schools themselves tend to fall in the bottom half of CT’s schools overall.
  • The school that Ms. McDowell chose to send her son to was, itself, not emblematic of “upward educational mobility.” Brookside ES ranks 383 out of CT’s 530 elementary schools–almost putting it in the bottom quartile.
  • (Practically) all of CT’s top schools have no poor students.
  • There is a very strong correlation between poverty (implied through the free and reduced lunch rate) and school rank (based on CT Mastery Test scores).
  • There’s a (bleak) story behind the weird outlier (the top 10 school with an 89% FRL rate) that probably caught your eye just as it caught mine. This is not a case of an amazing school defying the odds. Rather, it is a case of a school’s faculty gone succumbing to the pressure to raise test scores. Even sadder is that the school is called Hopeville.

And my thoughts:

Ms. McDowell ultimately appears to have made a rational decision by sending her son, albeit illegally, to the Norwalk school district. Who can fault a mother for wanting the best education possible for her son? While I doubt that Ms. McDowell used School Digger to choose Brookside, I’m sure her decision was influenced by what she knew of the school. And what she knew was that the education there was probably going to be much better than anything her son could get in Bridgeport.

But, as noted, the crushing part about this story is that the school she chose to send her son to was itself mediocre and likely not an environment that would have made a huge difference in her son’s life opportunities. She risked–and eventually was forced into–jail time to improve her son’s education to only a marginal degree. That she would do this (assuming, of course, that her son’s education was her primary motivation–something I have no reason to doubt) shows just how ****ed up our education system is.

In a state with as stark of an income inequality as Connecticut, this story is troublesome. It should make us rethink how we control access to our public schools. Of course, there are legitimate concerns on the other side, and the policy rationale behind criminalizing such an act makes some sense: we want to ensure that those in the district who are paying taxes directly benefit from those raised taxes and that, conversely, those from out-of-district aren’t unjustly enriching themselves.

Yet, if we truly want to ensure educational opportunity for all, something needs to change, whether it’s the way we fund schools; the process we use to enroll students; or the opportunities we create, by law, for students in poor areas to retain access to great schools (which, likely, will be in rich areas).

In a way, I admire Ms. McDowell’s act. By trying to give her son the best education possible, even if that meant openly and knowingly breaking the law, she highlighted the injustice of the system. The irony of all this, too, is that, had Ms. McDowell claimed to be homeless, she would have been permitted to keep her son in the Norwalk schools under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

What are your thoughts on this case? I focused on the educational context. Anyone have insights on the other parts to the story? Homelessness? Drugs? School funding? Local government law? Race? Poverty?

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9 Responses

  1. parus

    Honestly, it undercuts my sympathy for her quite a bit that she was dealing in the neighborhood she was trying to keep her son out of. Of course she didn’t want him to go to school there; she knew first hand the problems because she was part of them.

    That doesn’t mean it isn’t terribly unfair that the kid is caught up in this, or that there is such a discrepancy in school quality – in fact, I think those ought to be the real rallying points here. It’s her kid who’s being dealt with unfairly by this system, in my opinion, not her so much.

    • I don’t sympathize with any part of her drug-dealing life. There is no excuse or justification for dealing drugs–ever. But I wanted to try and separate out the drug issue with the education issue. Obviously, the prosecutor thought otherwise, refusing the request to separate the charges, instead trying them together. Since she obviously could not win on the drug issue, she was forced to plead guilty. So, in a sense, I sympathize with the her for the way she was treated by the criminal law.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • The New York Times article said the drug charges were pending, and that (at the time of the article) she was being charged with larceny and conspiracy related to the districting issue. How does this fit with your assertion that the drug charges and the larceny charges were tried together by the prosecutor?

        • Upon further reading it appears that while the drug and the school cases were tried separately, she was offered a plea bargain dependent on pleading guilty to both sets of charges. Also, that she’ll be spending less than half of that 12 year sentence physically in prison. If my understanding here is correct, your recap is somewhat misleading.

          I assume the insistence on the part of the prosecutor that she plead guilty to both sets of charges if she wanted the bargain was to relieve political pressure over the districting issue, a decision which is cynical and ugly. But on the other hand, again, if I’m reading the articles correctly, it doesn’t look like she’s actually spending more time in prison over the districting issue, since she’ll be doing the time for dealing concurrently with the time for larceny. I’m just not seeing a real cause célèbre to be had here…5 actual years spent in the slammer for all charges, which include crack cocaine dealing? It’ll be hard to get people worked up over that as a miscarriage of justice.

          Was the plea deal shady? Sure. But I’m not seeing the mother as the real victim here.

          • Fair enough. I guess I wasn’t clear about the exact nature of the plea bargain. Ultimately, I was trying to make the point about the shadiness of the whole arrangement. She “cuts her losses” by pleading guilty to both charges, because the alternative, which she rationally can’t risk, is going to, and losing at, trial. The prosecutor, by bringing the plea bargain in a “packaged-deal” format, has thus masked/clouded the distinct and real issue of how we district schools and determine who has rights to access education with the drug issue.

            So I still see problems with the whole process. That said, I don’t think she’s a “victim” on the drug side of things. She should spend time in jail for what she was doing there.

  2. Thought-provoking piece. While what McDowell did was clearly illegal, I wonder how different the educational landscape would look like if more parents were as impassioned about their children’s education. Also, the article about Hopeville hits close to home since NECAP scores from October just came out, and now my school is under fire about our “lack of progress” (even though we only began implementing our reform plan in September). Bleh..

  3. Here’s another interesting take on the case for anyone who’s interested: http://www.alternet.org/rights/154458/how_our_war_on_the_poor_landed_one_homeless_mother_in_jail

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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