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20 Years in Prison for Sending Your Kids to the Wrong School? Inequality in School Systems Leads Parents to Big Risks

There's a vast difference in quality among public school districts in the US--and parents who try to enroll their kids in better schools may face severe punishment.

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Regarding McDowell’s charges, Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said, "This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses," suggesting that the reason for the prosecution has more to do with making an example out of McDowell than seeking restitution or justice.

In the meantime, McDowell’s son, now 6, is staying with his grandmother while his mother is in jail awaiting trial. McDowell is receiving support from both the NAACP and the  Connecticut Parents Union  (CTPU), an education advocacy group.

Gwendolyn Samuel, founder of CTPU, told me that Ana Marquez, the babysitter who allowed McDowell to use her address, “got hit the hardest.” After the Norwalk Housing Authority evicted Marquez for fraud, her two young children, ages 4 and 6, were removed from her custody by the Department of Children and Family Services for a week. The family was then left homeless, shuffling from shelter to shelter for months. Meanwhile, the housing authority seized Marquez’s household belongings, which it has yet to return.

Due to the trauma endured by Marquez and her small children, who are now living with relatives in Florida, the CTPU has filed a lawsuit against the Norwalk Housing Authority on their behalf. Samuel is adamant about assisting Marquez in seeking damages from the housing authority for their reckless handling of her case.

“What Norwalk allowed to happen to Ana is why I get up every morning and do what I do,” says Samuel. “She used her address to give a five-year-old boy access to good crayons and books and you arrest her for that?”

Samuel believes that McDowell’s desperation, while tragic, was predictable given Connecticut’s  achievement gap  between low-income students and their more affluent counterparts, which is the highest in the country.

That is why the CTPU also supports  Ana Wade and her mother Marie Menard , who were arrested last October for first-degree larceny and conspiracy for registering Wade’s two children in the Stratford school district where Menard lives. This case is slightly more complicated than the others, because the children were in fact living with their grandmother during the school week while spending the weekends with their mother in her Milford, Connecticut home.

In August the CTPU assisted Menard in filing a  civil lawsuit  against the Stratford superintendent and board of education for violating the state’s equal protection laws because the two women were singled out for arrest while the vast majority of other parents caught for the same violation were simply asked to leave the district.

CTPU has been working to pass a legislative amendment that would prohibit the arrest of parents who lie about where they live to provide their children with a better education.   

Educational Inequality at the Heart of This Debate

The striking disparities in school quality between rich and poor neighborhoods aren’t exactly a secret. Any person who has stepped foot inside a wealthy suburban public school and an inner city public school would have to be blind not to recognize the differences in class and race. But for those who haven’t seen it for themselves, the willingness of parents to risk breaking the law to send their kids to better schools should serve as a window into the inequalities that permeate the American public school system. Hiring detectives to videotape kids at the bus stop and throwing parents in jail is not going to change that.


Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter  @RaniaKhalek.

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