Connecticut authorities have filed theft charges against Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman, alleging that she used a false address to enroll her son in a higher-income school district, The Stamford Advocate reports. If she's convicted, McDowell may end up in jail for as many as 20 years and pay a $15,000 fine for the crime.
McDowell is a homeless single mother from Bridgeport who used to work in food services, is now at the center of one of the very few false address cases in the Norwalk, CT, school district that is being handled in criminal court--rather than between the parent and school. Authorities are accusing McDowell of enrolling her 5-year-old son in nearby Norwalk schools by using the address of a friend. (Her friend has also been evicted from public housing for letting McDowell use her address.)
McDowell says she stayed in a Norwalk homeless shelter sometimes--but she didn't register there, which would have made her son eligible to attend the school.
"I had no idea whatsoever that if you enroll your child in another school district, it becomes a crime," the 33-year-old told the paper.
An education advocacy group, Connecticut Parents Union, is holding a fundraiser to help McDowell pay the possible fine.
The case is attracting some national attention in the education world, as it's similar to the headline-making story of Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar, who spent days in jail after using her father's address to send her kids to a better-performing school. Her story ignited a debate about inequalities in the public school system.
"One woman has been evicted, another could go to jail and all because a little boy went to school in a district where he sometimes lives," education writer Joanne Jacobs said of the case. The blog DropOut Nation notes that the Norwalk schools are better than those in Bridgeport, where McDowell's last address was; the case thereby raises larger questions about why poorer families often must send their kids to poorly performing schools, in part because local tax revenues make up so much of school funding.
In Williams-Bolar's case, private investigators hired by Copley-Fairlawn schools in Ohio found her out and turned her over to the courts. In McDowell's case, the false address was uncovered by a public housing attorney dealing with the friend who let her use the address.
"I am surprised that this is the case [Norwalk officials] chose to make an example of," Norwalk attorney Michael Corsello told the Stamford-Advocate.