Maya Angelou cautions to tell the truth, not the facts. But I like to start with the facts- then maybe, if we are lucky, we can discern some truth. What we know is that a Norwalk woman, Tonya McDowell, was arrested in Norwalk for lying about her residency so that her five year old son could attend the public schools in Norwalk. She was charged with felony grand larceny for “theft of services” to the tune of over $15,000 which is what Norwalk claims is the cost of one year’s worth of public education. http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/policereports/article/Bridgeport-woman-arrested-for-registering-son-in-1340009.php
What else do we know? According to Richard Moccia, the Mayor of Norwalk, who appeared on The Lisa Wexler Show , Thursday, April 21, 2011, Ms. McDowell was also arrested for selling narcotics within the proscribed limit of a school. Ms. McDowell has a criminal record which includes robbery. Ms. McDowell’s last known residency in Norwalk was when she registered at a homeless shelter in 2009. According to Mayor Moccia, the original criminal complaint came from a private party who complained that she was being physically threatened by Ms. McDowell. The boy’s father is currently incarcerated. You can hear the entire interview yourself here: Mayor Moccia Interview Lisa Wexler Show 4/21 .
So now that we know at least some of the facts, we need to ask: Are these facts relevant? Do we care about the history or actions of the mother, when the issue really concerns the education of a young child. Prof. Boyce Watkins does not think so. He thinks the mother’s criminal record is immaterial because he believes every child should have the right to receive a great public school education, and in his view, the mom was doing the right thing in lying in order to achieve this end. Hear his interview on the show as well at Whole Show April 21 including Prof Watkins .
Why does this case provoke such strong reactions? Because of Francie Nolan, the heroine of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, whose mother washed floors, sacrificed, and even lied, so that her daughter could get the education she deserved. We rooted for Francie, we cried when she received that diploma.
This case provokes strong reactions because we all know that where a kid goes to school can determine his or her entire future. Because we all know that there is injustice, inequity, and too much disparity between our best public schools and our worst ones, often located within blocks of each other. Forget about blocks away from each other- they might as well be worlds away from each other. Because we all know that we have to do better, that no matter what the troubles of the parents, our children deserve better.
Here is the other hand of the story: The other hand is that adults make choices and those choices have consequences. There are adults that work hard to break the cycle of poverty, drug abuse and crime so that their children can attend better schools, because those adults can afford to pay for them. For adults who are poor but who wish for a better life for their kids, there are many government programs and subsidies designed to give those kids a leg up. Sometimes the kids themselves have to show the initiative and promise, other times it is as simple and as cruel as a winning lottery ticket.
I asked Prof Watkins a pointed question that he could not adequately answer: If you take the position that all kids deserve the best education, then why charge admission of over 50k per year at Syracuse University, where you yourself are employed? Why shouldn’t higher education be subject to the same standard as you would hold the lower grades, and how can you justify earning your salary at an institution which so obviously discriminates on the basis of one’s pocketbook? He couldn’t answer, and neither can we, without admitting something that all of us already know. The world isn’t perfect. Money still buys privileges, including that of a better education. Therefore, one needs to work hard and earn money. Your other alternative? Don’t have kids you can’t afford to raise.
I can argue both points of view because I’ve seen real life examples of those hard-working adults, and yet I know too that no kid deserves bad parents. No kid should have to be resigned to a fate of hopelessness and poverty because of the unhappy accident of having parents who made poor choices.
What would I do here? The answer is this particular case seems pretty simple, and I believe Mayor Moccia will do his best to achieve a just result. On the charge of lying about a school district, an investigation should be held as to where the mother really, truly lives. If she has a residence in Bridgeport, as is being supposed, then her child should go to school there, but the state should be involved to supplement his education with head start, day care and other programs that will be useful to the child and enable the mom to have time during the day to work. The state should help her find a job because with that criminal record behind her, she is virtually unemployable otherwise. If she is homeless, Mayor Moccia has said that Norwalk has a program to help her and her child enroll in school and job training programs.
On the criminal end? I would drop the charges of grand larceny. Incarcerating the mom won’t help anyone, and besides, the mother did not do anything to deserve being jailed. She did not commit an act of violence that would require her to be quarantined from society. She lied on a school form. Big deal. She got caught. I can already hear the pleas of people saying that if she isn’t adequately punished, then what will stop other mothers from doing the same thing? Nothing ever has and nothing ever will. Until we really address the inequities in our school districts, this kind of thing will keep happening. It’s hard to blame a parent for trying.
Next stop? Do what is in the best interests of the family. Maybe this little boy will be tomorrow’s Francie Nolan.