Tanya McDowell, who is homeless, faces 20 years in jail and a $15,000 fine for first-degree larceny, Change.Org reported yesterday. Her crime: “stealing her son’s education.” McDowell either sleeps in a minivan or shelter with her son A.J. Without a permanent address of her own, she used her babysitter’s address to sign him up for kindergarten. Norwalk authorities have said that because A.J. doesn’t live in their district it is illegal for him to attend their schools. However, this argument is specious as he sleeps in a Norwalk Emergency Shelter.
McDowell’s son attended Brookside Elementary for four months before being kicked out. In that time he did not miss a day of class and, according to his mother, loved his school. The school system wants McDowell to pay $15,686 for the educational services she “stole.” However, this figure is what Norwalk spends per student for an entire school year (see The Daily Norwalk), whereas A.J. was only enrolled for half of a school year, suggesting that Norwalk is trying to embezzle $7,843 from McDowell.
This is now the second case in the past six months of a poor mother facing jail time simply for trying to enroll her child in public school. Kelley Williams-Bolar had a similar experience in Ohio. (See Modern School: Black Mom Jailed for Sending Kids to White School—Grandpa Guilty of Stealing White Kids’ Education). Ohio Governor John Kasich was asked by activists to pardon Williams-Bolar, but he punted, sending the case to the Parole Board. Their decision is expected this summer, according to Change.Org.
As with Williams-Bolar, Change.Org has taken on McDowell’s cause and has organized a petition to get her exonerated. They say that Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia has received emails in support of McDowell from across the country. However, Moccia has not shown much empathy for her. On the contrary, he told FOX News that she "not a poor, picked-upon homeless person. . . [she] is an ex con, and somehow the city of Norwalk is made into the ogre in this. She has a checkered past at best."
McDowells’ past is irrelevant to the case. She has no history of trying to take advantage of the school system and her past convictions do not justify denying her son the right to a decent education. Rather than attacking her character, McDowell should be commended for her extraordinary resolve and courage in trying to get her son enrolled in school despite the incredible challenges of being homeless and single. Dealing with educational bureaucracies is no walk in the park even for two-parent families with homes and steady incomes. Furthermore, she had every right to enroll her child at Brookside. Not only were she and her son sleeping at a Norwalk shelter, which would make them Norwalk residents, but the McKinney-Vento Act gives the parents or guardians of a homeless child the right to attend the school in the district where they currently reside, according to the Connecticut Post. Connecticut currently has $230,780 in McKinney-Vento funds to offset the cost of educating homeless kids. Furthermore, the law requires that schools continue to keep children enrolled until disputes have been resolved.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
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McDowell enrolled A.J. at Brookside Elementary in Norwalk, using the address of a friend who babysat for them at the Roodner Court public housing complex. The Stamford Advocate reported that the friend was evicted from her apartment as a result of the investigation, even though McDowell claims she never lived there.
The Bigger Picture
There are over 1.35 million children who experience homelessness each year in the U.S., according to the Department of Education. Homeless people have a difficult time providing stability for their children, moving as many as 12 times as often as people who have permanent housing. This puts their children at a huge disadvantage academically. According to the Educational Testing Service, 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17%, respectively, for those who remained at the same schools (See 8 Delusions About Education). They miss out on the benefit of establishing relationships with teachers. They are less likely to have a quiet, organized place to do homework. They suffer stress from financial and housing insecurity and from elevated levels of violence. According to the DOE, domestic violence affects as many as 63% of homeless parents. Prior to the passing of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, up to 50% of homeless children were not attending school regularly.
To see the details of The McKinney-Vento Act, please click here.