I recently discussed a (startling) case in which a homeless mother was sentenced to 12 years in prison for, among other things, “stealing an education.” This charge of first-degree larceny came after Tanya McDowell falsified her residency information in order to enroll her 6-year-old son in a neighboring school district. I thought it was crazy–yet completely rational–that a parent would choose to risk jail time in order to put her child in a better school.
But I never expected this. It turns out there are lots of parents out there who are making all sorts of insane sacrifices in order to increase their children’s educational opportunities:
- An anonymous Hartford, CT mother, “do[ing] what [she] had to do as a mother,” gave her sister custody of her child because her sister lived in a school district with better test scores.
- Another anonymous Hartford, CT mother, recognizing her own experience as a Hartford Public Schools graduate (i.e. she graduated functionally illiterate), placed some of her children in neighboring Windsor, CT (“I knew what [Hartford Public Schools] did to me, pushed me out without being able to read and write… I was determined that my child wasn’t going to get caught up in that system.”).
- Marie Menard, a Stratford, CT-based grandmother, was arrested for first-degree larceny and conspiracy for helping her Milford, CT-based grandchildren enroll within her school district.
- After Yolanda Miranda, a Rochester, NY-based mother of five, was arrested for stealing education by enrolling her children in a neighboring school district, she chose to give up guardianship over her children to her mother, who resided in a better school district.
- Kelly Williams-Bolar, of Akron, OH, also served jail time after prosecutors discovered she had enrolled her daughters in neighboring Copley-Fairlawn’s school district.
I have two things to say:
First, everything that the above-mentioned parents have done to find the best possible school arrangement for their children is understandable–and particularly so in light of the experience of someone whom I am very close to. This person is a first-generation immigrant of color who came to the US during high school in search of better educational opportunities. When this person arrived in some unnamed port city, she discovered that the schools in the district in which she began to reside were sub-par. This person researched the surrounding school districts and found one with significantly better schools. Through means that were “unconventional” but likely (and hopefully) still “legal,” this person was able to go to a great school in that neighboring district. The rest, as they say, was history: this person went on to graduate from a great college and began a highly-successful career. She is now living the American Dream.
But what would’ve happened if she hadn’t been able to go to the neighboring district’s school? What would’ve happened if she were arrested and jailed for attempting to do so? Would she be where she is now?
Second, I think Susan Eaton of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice (and author of one my favorite education-related books, The Children in Room E4–see “Stop 4″ here) makes a valid point that the debate over education reform often papers over the more “unsavory aspects” of the history of public schools and residential zoning in the United States:
Racial discrimination was at the very root of how these districts were created… But no one wants to really open up that discussion again. So instead we say, ‘Work harder, be tougher, do better somehow. Good luck.’
I agree that the dialogue on education reform sometimes loses touch with this reality. It’s not enough to frame the debate simply in terms of, say, “teacher quality” or “school choice” in the abstract; instead, each element needs to be viewed through the lens of race and racial discrimination–something that persists, to this day, in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. Communities of color face staggering problems of “teacher quality” and have practically no “school choice.” The issue of race, which is so intertwined with the debate, should be emphasized more in this debate.
Indeed, I’ve learned enough about prosecutorial discretion to know that the practical reality in our nation today is that groups of people with certain characteristics (read: dark skin) are likely to be disparately impacted by the criminal justice system. It is telling that, of all the cases I’ve seen that have reached the criminal prosecution stage, every parent has been black. Even though Marie Menard herself is white, her grandchildren are of mixed race. So-called “discretion” has been exercised with more rigor when black students are involved. As with the War on Drugs, so too with education.