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School District

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Every once in a while, I stumble across odd situations in the local news, and I follow them until I can make sense of them.

I’m not sure that I can make sense out of this one, exactly, but I’ve got some ideas.

A little over a year ago, a homeless woman from Bridgeport named Tanya McDowell was arrested for “stealing education.”

In case you’re wondering what that means, it’s simple–McDowell supposedly lived in Bridgeport, but she took her child across city lines and registered him in a Norwalk school, giving a false address to give the impression that she and the child resided in the district where the school was located.

When I first heard this story, I had some questions that I thought were obvious, but that nobody else seemed to be considering.

The first of these was that I did not understand how, if the woman was homeless, she could be said to “live” anywhere in particular. 

Isn’t that the nature of homelessness?  McDowell might not have been living in Norwalk, but she wasn’t actually living in Bridgeport, either. 

All I can say is that there must have been some method of working this out, because McDowell was duly charged and sent off on a long and convoluted road that ended (more or less) yesterday, when she was sentenced to five years in prison for a series of offenses that were discovered during the investigation into “stealing education.”

In other words, Tanya McDowell was  nobody’s idea of a saint, or even of a reasonably responsible human being.  She wasn’t homeless because life had turned sour on her and she just hadn’t gotten the breaks. 

And my guess is that she also wasn’t very bright.  While out on bail on the “stealing education” charge, she managed to get herself arrested again for selling drugs to undercover officers.


Here’s the thing.

It’s unusual to find a homeless mother trying to get her child registered for school at all.  It’s not just the fact that many of the homeless are either drug addicted or mentally ill or both. 

Even in the best of cases, what you almost always find are people who are almost terminally disorganized, whose skill levels and levels of education are low, whose sense of time is tentative and who tend to find it difficult to establish and maintain routines.

In McDowell’s case, the impression I got was that the basic issue was drugs, and that’s the way that goes.


Here’s the thing.

McDowell’s attempt to register her child in a better school district was neither stupid nor irresponsible, even if it was criminal.

The Bridgeport schools are as bottom of the barrel as you can get. Not only are the academic achievement levels low–low enough to be called bottoming out–but there are endless problems with drugs, weapons, and gangs,  dizzyingly high levels of out of wedlock pregnancy, and drop out rates that just won’t quit.

If I had a child sentenced to spend his time in such a school, I’d do anything I could to get him out, too.

And when I ask myself whether I would think she was a better person if she’d just registered her child in the allowed district, I’m not sure my answer would be yes.

In the meantime, of course, everybody involved with this case and everybody who’s heard about it has been going ballistic.

There’s been enormous support for McDowell across the country and a general feeling that she should not have been prosecuted on the “stealing education” charge. 

In the meantime, the towns have been going nuts, scared to death that if McDowell got off lightly on the education charge they would be faced with a tidal wave of false registrations and a pool of severely disadvantaged students needing special conditions and circumstances they’re not in a position to provide.

And the Norwalk issue is ironic.  Norwalk is in no way one of Connecticut’s better school systems.  It’s a crowded industrial city itself. 

It’s just a lot better than Bridgeport.

McDowell has, by now, been hit with a fine large enough so that the chances are she will never get out from  under it.   She’s gone from being homeless with a chance (maybe) to pretty much permanently unable to get her life back to anything any of us would consider “normal.”

She’s lost her child.  She’s going to spend five years in jail on the drugs charges. 

She’s landed in a horrific and possibly unsolvable mess.

And it’s arguably all her own fault, especially with the drugs.


Criminal or not, that thing with the school registration is a sign of something.

It’s a sign that there’s something truly salvagable here, something in Tanya McDowell that is deserves to be acknowledged.

I’m not too sure how.

I just know that coming down on her like this feels entirely wrong to me.

Written by janeh

February 28th, 2013 at 8:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'School District'

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  1. “It’s a sign that there’s something truly salvagable here, something in Tanya McDowell that is deserves to be acknowledged.”

    I can only give the Christian answer: there’s something salvagable in every one of us–you, me, Hitler, John Wayne Gacey–everyone. Sometimes, human justice–or safety–rightly demands we not try to salvage. But there are NO irredeemable people.

    If there were, you might have to put whoever in Norwalk pressed charges for stealing education on the list, and the administrators in Bridgeport who are collecting salaries for not educating children. But they too can change. We all can.

    For real national stupidity here, though, first prize goes to the war on drugs. We may have ruined more lives on drug charges than we’ve lost to actual drugs, all without making them difficult or expensive to get. We could argue whether we were constitutionally justified a century ago in restricting what an adult could or could not ingest, but we now have a century of evidence to prove we were certainy unwise. Time to set the prisoners free, and stop making more.


    28 Feb 13 at 6:10 pm

  2. Ah, but Robert, in many states, there are now contracts with commercial prison enterprises which guarantee a certain level of population to be maintained. If we stopped arresting/convicting on low level drug charges, and (gasp!) released those incarcerated for same, we would drop below those mandatory, guaranteed quotas.

    There just aren’t enough violent criminals to keep the population up. Oh, not to mention the flood of new job seekers to bring down the employment figures.

    Sorry, I’ve been watching too much “House of Cards.” Highly recommended when your cynicism wears thin. ;)


    28 Feb 13 at 7:19 pm

  3. Its naughty of me but I get some wry amusement out of the situation Jane describes happening in Connecticut. The Australian media calls that state as solid liberal Democrat and also says liberal Democrats don’t like the drug laws and favor equality!


    28 Feb 13 at 7:27 pm

  4. The Australian media, like the American media I’ve read or watched, have a ‘tin ear’ for hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is blind to national, state and political boundaries and is pretty much equally shared by all.

    For better or worse, our school systems are state-funded (with federal assistance to the states), so we are unlikely ever to have such a tragic situation here. We have problems aplenty without that.

    We also have statutory, not elected, law enforcement and judicial authorities. Our prosecutors do not need to take scalps in wholesale bulk lots to satisfy their political masters/ambitions.


    28 Feb 13 at 8:07 pm

  5. Mique, the US school system is also state-funded (in most states by property taxes) and federally subsidized.

    But school districts are usually very strict about serving ONLY those students who actually live within their boundaries. Otherwise every caring parent in bad school or a bad district would lie to get their kid into the good school down the road. Districts vary in their funding, usually because of their local tax base. Poor folks don’t have big fancy houses, so their schools don’t get as much money. But they might live just a mile or so from another district with a rich tax base, which might spend as much as 2 or 3 times as much per pupil, with predictable results.

    Not to mention the better district doesn’t want “those people” sucking up their resources, or showing up at Parent’s Night or whatever.

    Many districts will allow a student to attend any school within the district if the school has room for transfers. At one point, we transferred our kids to a different elementary just to get them away from bad teachers. We lived more or less equidistant from each of them, and the transfer was easy.

    I’d never actually heard of criminalizing having your child attend an out of district school. Here, it’s just grounds for student expulsion if you’re found out. I’m not sure how a homeless person can even be said to “live” in a certain district! Kinda splitting hairs, there. Seems like the prosecutor might have better things to do with their time.

    But then, he had a woman who clearly couldn’t fight back in his sights…so rather than try to help, why not pile on? Looks good in the conviction stats.


    1 Mar 13 at 2:42 am

  6. 1) Well aware of the prison contract business, thank you–and my cynicism never wears thin.
    2) For all the griping about unequal tax bases, what with Federal money I don’t think any school system in the US is funded below the 1960’s average–which paid working buildings, a teacher for every 30 students and new textboks every five years. Why doesn’t it now? (Yes, I was allowing for inflation.) In fact, our worst school systems spend incredible amounts per pupil. See DC and NYC. (Also who SHOULD decide how much to spend on education? “Their neighbors and parents” seems like a reasonable answer, which the advocates of centralization continue to ignore.)
    3) You don’t need different tax bases. You can fight bitterly over schools all in one school system. I know. I’ve done it.


    1 Mar 13 at 6:13 am

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