Prosecute for Lack of Opportunity, Not a Mother's Desire for a Good School

Tanya McDowell is being prosecuted by a Connecticut court...Tanya McDowell.

"The challenge in the state of Connecticut and beyond is providing a quality education for all children. The failure of school systems to provide that is the larger issue that goes well beyond whatever happened in this case."
Bruce Morris
Norwalk Schools
Director of Human Relations 

New York Times highlights education inequalities: 

"Connecticut, with its patchwork of poor cities and wealthy suburbs, has the largest achievement gap between black and white students of any state in the country."

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Connecticut ranks 44th in the nation

in its Opportunity to Learn Index. Black students have only 33% of the opportunity to learn that their white counterparts do. Tanya McDowell is being prosecuted by a Connecticut court for stealing from the city of Norwalk.

Norwalk officials say that by enrolling her 5-year-old son in city schools without living there, the 33-year-old mother - reportedly homeless at the time - stole nearly $16,000 from their coffers, or the cost of a year of school.

McDowell says she was trying to get her son the best possible education and armed with information about local schools, did what she felt was best for her son. She doesn't think she stole anything - except perhaps a little more hope for her son's future.

Her supporters - and they seem to be growing nationally - agree and argue that the quality of a child's education should not be decided by zip code. They held a press conference yesterday in Norwalk to draw attention to McDowell's plight.

"It is time to end laws that penalize and arrest parents for accessing great public schools for their children," stated a press release for the event, which was organized by The Connecticut Parents Union.

While the legal debate unfolds, the real crime here is that so many U.S. children must attend schools that lack qualified teachers, fail to provide adequate instructional materials for all children and have high dropout rates.

These students - most of them low-income students of color - are denied the opportunity to learn that a child on the other side of the proverbial tracks enjoys. McDowell knows what quality and opportunity look like and didn't want her child denied either one. She now faces charges of grand larceny.

And where should she turn? Policymakers and leaders who could do the most to expand educational opportunity are mired in politics, sidetracked by school and teacher bashing, and undercut by fads or hamstrung by very real stress on federal, state and local budgets.

But for all of the time and energy spent on those issues, they are not even the ones that matter most. The critical choices include federal education policies that fund a handful of states under Race to the Top rather than helping all states support and fund opportunity. Or holding military spending sacred while exposing education to new fiscal vulnerability. At the state level, education dollars increasingly compete with spending for prisons.

These choices for policymakers might be different and easier if the ultimate goal were equal educational opportunity for all. 

McDowell's choice might have been different as well. We should not have to tell parents to send a child to a school where his chance of learning to read, gain basic skills and eventually graduate are far lower than if he took a bus a few miles in another direction.

President Obama said as much in his 2010 State of the Union address: "... in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential."

He is right. A family's zip code should not determine the quality of a student's education. Let's hope that the case of Tanya McDowell gives us all pause to reflect on why a mother must send her 5-year-old son to a school system that pales when compared to an option next door. We can do better in this land of opportunity.

John Jackson

President& CEO

The Schott Foundation for Public Education

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