Today, we start with the story of Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman charged with larceny and conspiracy in defrauding the Norwalk, Connecticut, public schools. Ms. McDowell, facing conspiracy for possessing marijuana and crack cocaine in another case, allegedly used a false address to enroll her 5 year old in school. Presently, McDowell faces the possibility of up to 20(!?)! years in prison, as well as being forced to pay $16,000 in restitution for the schooling her child wasn’t entitled to.
Parents trying to defraud public schools, particularly better public schools, isn’t all that unusual; criminal prosecution is. McDowell is the only one of 27 parents accused of cheating to get their kids in school facing court charges. Her case has become a cause for education activists. Change.org has launched a petition campaign against prosecution that, at this moment, has more than 17,000 on-line signatures.
Would a judge actually send a parent trying to look out for her kid to jail? Yes. Earlier this year, an Ohio judge sent teacher’s aid Kelley Williams-Bolar to jail for ten days after finding that she had falsified residency records to that her children could attend better schools. The judge suspended the rest of the five year sentence.
Ms. Bolar-Williams, studying to be a teacher (a prospect that is now up in the air), was well aware of the vast inequality that characterize public schools in Ohio (and the rest of the United States), and wanted the best for her children–better than she could pay for. She thought the Copley-Fairlawn district provided better and safer schools than those where she lived.
Could these dramatic cases become the spark that starts a national movement for real school reform? Sometimes a visible injustice does exactly that. Think of what the civil rights movement did with Rosa Parks. But Williams-Bolar and McDowell weren’t looking to change the world, just the prospects for their children. And the middle-class education-oriented people who often support social justice campaigns are worried about their own children.
These dramatic and disturbing cases underscore the obstacles education reformers face in America. Parents looking out for their kids try to move into communities which offer the best public schools they can afford. (This usually means higher local property taxes and higher real estate costs. In California, it means extensive private fundraising.) My parents did, siting off reputation; these days, we have test scores as well.
Parents want to get what they pay for, which generally includes better facilities, more diverse offerings and activities, and smaller class size. Students from outside the district aren’t paying their share, and their presence, school administrators explain, strains the schools. Does an additional child or two in a class really make that much of a difference? How about nine? How about when class size rockets from 20-31 residents (a result of school budget crises)?
These numbers are from my daughters’ first grade classes in Irvine, California–which has a reputation for very good schools.) Every year, Irvine families must demonstrate residency for each child; it feels more frequent than that.
As Americans, we have an interest in providing a good education to all children. Actually, it’s probably even more important for children whose parents are less competent (homelessness and crack cocaine are hardly educational advantages).
As parents, and as residents of local communities, we want to preserve what we can for our children and our neighbors, fighting against a tide of decline sweeping the state or country.
In Beverly Hills, local parents started an emergency fundraiser to prevent 11 layoffs in the district. They raised more than a half-million dollars in a week, and the effort continues. In Irvine, as in other affluent communities, a (private) public school foundation raises money to provide programs that the state no longer does. They don’t criticize, or even mention, local legislators who vote against plans to fund the schools. After all, opponents of fair taxation might make generous contributions. And parents who can hire tutors and pay fees for special programs, so that their children don’t face the full consequence of our collective choices.
In effect, a drive to protect the local school works against adequately educating all our children.