Homeless, Black, And Sentenced To Prison For Trying To Be A Good Mother

Previously homeless Tonya McDowell now has a taxpayer funded home behind bars.

Previously homeless Tonya McDowell now has a taxpayer funded home behind bars.

While Americans sat cozily glued to their TVs and computers watching Rand Paul drone on about the injustice of what might or might not happen to American citizens, actual flesh and blood American citizens are losing their freedom for crimes no greater than simply being poor. In Connecticut, a 33-year-old homeless woman wanted to help ensure that her six-year-old young son would not be penalized for her poverty. In trying to get him a good education, the Bridgeport, CT woman enrolled him in a Norwalk school and for that, she has been sentenced to five years in prison while her son is being sentenced to at least five years without a mother.

From Feministing:

Tanya McDowell was living as a homeless woman when she was arrested for sending her five year old son to a school district where she- surprise- didn’t have a permanent residence. Ms. McDowell has said that she only wanted a better education for her child. Despite a change.org petition that has generated over 15, 600 signatures asking for the charges to be dropped against her, she was just sentenced to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty in the case.

There’s no question that enrolling students in the wrong school district, or as schools call it, boundary hopping, is a problem. As schools are increasingly overcrowded, they are turning to extraordinary measures to ensure that each student enrolled in school actually belongs there.

While Republicans might argue that cases such as McDowell’s are proof of the need for school choice, it is arguably GOP initiated programs such as vouchers, charter schools and lotteries that create situations like McDowell’s.

School choice was never really designed to give parents and students a choice. If anything, it allows schools to pick and choose their students, legally bypassing anti-discrimination rulings such as Brown vs. The Board of Education. From Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice:

School Choice programs, including school vouchers, charter and magnet schools, are not the egalitarian antidote for the historical inequality and discrimination entrenched within the U.S. public education system.

The term school choice is commonly used by corporate education reformers as a grotesque misnomer to disguise their attempted end-run around the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal recognition in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) of the constitutional right of all children to equal educational opportunity, based upon the absolute rejection of the “separate but equal” concept of segregated public education.

School choice programs encourage privatized outsourcing of public education that increases academic segregation based on race, disability, language and poverty that undermines the concept of equal educational opportunity.

Youth of color labeled as “high need” or “difficult” students, i.e., those struggling academically, English learners, and those with special needs or disabilities, are disproportionately excluded by school choice programs, particularly charters that deny them enrollment by cherry-picking students using selective student admissions methods, e.g., screening interviews or assessment tests.

Schools are cracking down, and McDowell’s, while probably the most severe penalty, is not the first felony conviction. While McDowell’s was exacerbated by an accompanying drug conviction, others, primarily minorities, are being targeted by “better” school districts.

There is no doubt that McDowell’s actions cost the community of Norwalk, CT, but at what cost to society is her incarceration? On average, we spend under $10,000 per student per year, while we spend more than twice that on each prisoner. McDowell’s young son will be without a mother at least the next five years. If put in foster care, the taxpayer burden could be at least another $20,000 per year. All the while, a life of foster care will most likely doom her child to a life of poverty, at best, continuing a cycle of taxpayer dependency. When looking at the spiraling costs associated with McDowell’s attempt to be a good parent – to help break the cycle of homelessness and poverty by providing her son with a good education – it would be a relative bargain to house McDowell in her preferred school district.

McDowell was also sentenced for selling drugs to an undercover police officer. In all, she was sentenced to 12 years, for which she will serve five. Her son is currently staying with his grandmother.

Screen-Shot-2012-12-27-at-6.14.13-PM Wendy Gittleson grew up in a political family. Her passion is for social justice and fairness. She is the Senior Editor for Addicting Info. She lives in a union household. In her rare downtime, you’ll find her hiking or exploring the shoreline with her dogs. Follow her on her Facebook page or on Twitter, @wendygittleson