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A Disturbing New Trend: Jailing Poor Black Mothers for Trying to Educate Their Children

Courtney Bowie,
Racial Justice Program
Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
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May 4, 2011

In a case very similar to one in Akron, Ohio, we wrote about a few months ago, a Connecticut homeless woman is currently facing felony charges for enrolling her 5-year-old son in a Norwalk elementary school by using her babysitter’s address.

According to the media, the state considers this to be first-degree larceny because Tanya McDowell “stole” nearly $15,000 in education for her son, and she faces a possible 20-year prison sentence for a nonviolent crime. The district claims not to have known that she was homeless. In fact, as a homeless student, the woman’s son would have been eligible to attend school and to be transported to it, under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

It is not immediately clear whether this child was homeless, but what is clear is both McDowell and her son are poor people of color in a wealthy state, she wanted her kindergartner to attend what she considered to be a good school in Norwalk.

Education and civil rights advocates support McDowell, but the mayor of Norwalk, Richard Moccia, is standing by the decision to punish her for trying to give her child a better chance in life. While Moccia’s motive to make an example of this mother is unclear, McDowell’s motive is obvious enough: She wanted to give her five-year-old son the best education possible.

McDowell’s case implicates a larger nationwide problem: the existence of “good” and “bad” schools: White students predominately populate the “good” schools, while “bad” schools have large minority populations. This effective racial segregation led to the same types of separate and unequal schools held unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. School desegregation cases that followed Brown led to white parents “zone jumping” in order to avoid sending their children to school with black children. This practice continues today. In some cases, parents used fraudulent addresses so that their children could attend all-white school districts. In other cases, parents applied for transfers to neighboring districts in order to avoid schools with large minority populations.

Zone-jumping in the post-Brown era allowed parents to escape integration presumably because the education offered to children in inner-city minority school districts was inferior. In the Sheff case brought by the ACLU and co-counsel, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the notion that Connecticut’s inner-city schools are providing an inferior education precisely because of the racial and socioeconomic isolation of its students. This is the same theory that motivated McDowell, her Ohio counterpart Kelley Williams-Bolar, and other zone-jumping parents to escape predominantly minority schools. They are escaping racially isolated schools because those schools have historically not done a good job educating its students, and we as a society have yet to do anything about it. The only difference between these parents and the thousands of white parents who zone-jumped in the past to escape predominantly minority schools is that McDowell and Williams-Bolar are black.

In addition to being an example of ongoing racial segregation in schools, McDowell’s case exemplifies the absurdity of our nation’s priorities and its irrational addiction to overincarceration. Poor education leads to incarceration, and states around the country place more energy and resources into jailing its citizens then into educating them. Not only do the city and state lose money by pursuing such an absurd criminal case against a homeless woman for caring for her child, but the long-term prospects for her child in Connecticut’s inner-city schools is dismal. Not surprisingly, Connecticut is one of five states that spend as much or more on corrections than on higher education. For the short-term, Norwalk might have saved itself a few dollars. In the long-run and as a matter of justice, the state of Connecticut is going to lose both dollars and in fairness.

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