No mother or father should go to prison for doing everything they can their child get the high-quality education they need for success in school and life. And yet, this is what is about to happen to Tanya McDowell, the Bridgeport, Conn., mother whose case has been covered by Dropout Nation since it made headlines last year. Last week, McDowell plead guilty to the ludicrous charge that can only be called stealing education; she will now spend five years in prison on those charges alone, essentially removed from the life of her son as he grows into manhood. It also means that once she leaves prison, she will have a conviction, essentially condemning her to the very poverty that she was trying to avoid for her child.
Now let’s make this clear: McDowell is no saint. After all, she also faced separate charges for other crimes. As I noted last year, McDowell was certainly doing right by her son in a good number of regards. But as I wrote last year, we cannot simply gloss over McDowell’s shortcomings no more than we would forget those of poor-performing teachers and incompetent principals. All are responsible for the lives of children — and none of them can afford to fail them.
At the same time, the reality is that McDowell was being used by Norwalk city and district officials as an example to other families willing to do anything to help their kid succeed. If McDowell was found guilty by trial for what can laughingly be called theft of educational services, she was going to spend 20 years in prison and repay the district back tuition. That was about as much time as she would have gotten for the three other charges.
Which leads to the heart of the matter: No parent should have to fight so hard to help their kids get a high-quality education. Far too many parents, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds (and even many from the middle class) can’t access high-quality teaching and curricula for their kids. Contrary to what education traditionalists and the organizations and people that abet them want to proclaim, the problem isn’t choice, but the Zip Code Education policies — from intra-district zoned schooling policies, to restrictions on the existence and expansion of charter schools, vouchers, and other choice — that limit the ability of families to give their children what they deserve.
When it is far easier for poor and middle class households to get a wide array of high-quality options in areas of life in which the stakes are low such as dining, than it is for them to provide their child with good-to-great teachers and schools, we are dealing with a moral, intellectual, economic, and existential crisis that damages individuals, families, communities, in fact, this entire nation. Even worse, it is utter hypocrisy. Teachers, school leaders, and other players who defend the status quo in American public education have no right to blame parents for the academic problems facing their kids when the policies they defend effectively keep families from actually taking proactive action for them.
Tanya McDowell is no saint. She is also no different than Kelley Williams-Bolar, Annette Callahan, Marie Menard, your mother, or mine. Like all mothers, Tanya fought fiercely to provide her child with a life better than her own. She didn’t necessarily mother her son the right way. But she also doesn’t deserve prison time for doing what any parent should do when it comes to providing her child with a school fit for his genius and his future.
This must be made right. It starts with Gov. Dan Malloy, who now has an important opportunity to live up to his determination to be the School Reformer-in-Chief for the Nutmeg State, by immediately granting her a pardon, and declaring that it is time to expand school choice in his state. He should also back the efforts of the Connecticut Parents Union to abolish and revamp school residency laws in order to expand choice and Parent Power — and should also show up on March 14 for the rally on school reform the group will be holding. (You can sign the petition asking Malloy to pardon McDowell, if you so choose.)
Meanwhile legislators should join Malloy by moving immediately on revamping those rules, and begin the long-term overhaul of the state’s school funding system. This means the state taking over full funding of education, essentially turning those dollars into vouchers so they can follow a child to the best school opportunity for their needs.
But it’s not just time to end Zip Code Education in Connecticut. It is time for it to end in every state throughout this nation. This will take more than just petitions. As I made clear in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, it will take armies of families and school reformers, playing for keeps, tackling education traditionalists (especially school district bureaucracies) with bare knuckle tactics, just to end Zip Code Education and overhaul American public education. It cannot be incremental change either. Each day, we must commit to radically-yet-patiently transforming these systems. And it will mean hard battles day after day, both in rhetoric and in political action, in order for our children to get what they deserve.
Where a child lives should not determine the quality of teaching and instruction they must have in order to be successful educationally, socially, and economically.