The education thief

A homeless woman has been arrested for first-degree larceny for “stealing” $15,686 for her son’s education, reports the Stamford Advocate. Tonya McDowell, 33, used the Norwalk, Connecticut address of her after-school babysitter to enroll her six-year-old son in a nearby school. McDowell alternates between a friend’s apartment in Bridgeport and a homeless shelter in Norwalk, she told police.

The Norwalk Housing Authority discovered the ruse in January, evicted the babysitter and turned McDowell into the school district, which is cracking down on out-of-district students. This is the first time Norwalk has charged a parent with a crime for using a false address.

While (Mayor Richard) Moccia said it was sad the case involves a woman who appears to be homeless, he pointed out that if she had been living at the Norwalk shelter and registered her child there she would not be facing charges now.

I realize that McDowell doesn’t pay Norwalk taxes, but she’s not paying Bridgeport taxes either.  (I assume she has a job, since she needs child care, so she may pay some state taxes.) One woman has been evicted, another could go to jail and all because a little boy went to school in a district where he sometimes lives.

Of course, this recalls the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Ohio woman who spent several days in jail for using her father’s address to get her kids into a better and safer school.

Norwalk schools are better, notes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation, who has stats on “promoting power” for black students in the two districts. The Connecticut Parents Union is lobbying to let McDowell’s son finish out the school year and is raising money to pay the $15,686 in tuition for out-of-district students, Biddle writes. A pro-McDowell petition is here.

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Comments

  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Nearly twenty years ago, I worked as a nanny for a family of two doctors. They lived in Queens in an upscale neighborhood (Forest Hills) that was divided between two seperate school districts. One much better than than the other. The doctors lived in the less desirable district, but one of them rented a small office in the better district. The registered their daughers in the better district. As far as I know, they were never found out. Many, many people do this kind of thing. It’s so sad to hear that the poor seem to be the ones prosecuted for this.

  2. SuperSub says:

    At least in your case the doctors were paying (through rent) taxes that supported the school district their children attended.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    If schools did not benefit the people who fund them and who organize them to retain some level of quality, then virtually everyone would stop caring about the public schools (See Hawaii for a good example of what happens when virtually no elected leader or community leader send their children to public schools.)

    If parents organize a help a school be good and then the school is overrun by poor, minority outsiders, there is no point to working for better schools.

    Keeping out others should just been seen as one of the prices of maintain public schools in the U.S.

  4. Soapbox0916 says:

    As someone who works with the homeless in real life, this falls into my territory. I get to witness firsthand families making their way back to be productive members of society aka full-fledged taxpayers. A little help done right and can make a huge difference.

    Please do not assume that homeless don’t pay taxes, a lot of homeless are struggling working poor who do indeed pay taxes trying to get back on their feet. There are also other ways that homeless pay taxes. Also, even for those that have lost their jobs, many had been paying taxes up to the point of losing their job. I know this from working directly with homeless and near-homeless on their finances.

    There should be a homeless children representative for every school system that homeless families have to register with, this story almost seems like a big part of this is the woman did not register her child and let the authorites themselves decide where the child goes to school. It is more case by case basis for determing where a “homeless child” goes to school.

    I am trying to control my temper regarding some of the comments above since I know I am overly sensitive when it comes to the homeless and poor, but I will mention that snobbery does not solve anything and leave it at that.

  5. I am struggling to understand how it makes sense to prosecute and fine indigent, or close to indigent, people as a way to teach them or others a lesson. When people are stressed and are out of money, they clearly are struggling. It is often the case that in circumstances like this families simply do not have the time or resources to puzzle through the intracacies of complex systems. It is not as if we make it easy to negotiate enrollment procedures, let alone other procedures people have to follow to achieve action. Witness the difficulties in ensuring stressed, indigent people follow medication directions or recommendations of doctors–that is, if the doctors can successfully translate their medical-ese to their patients at all.

    The last time I checked United States citizens have a right to a free and appropriate public education up until the age of 21. This is a property right, meaning it has a real dollar value which, if the person is deprived of same, they can sue to recover. The purpose of this is to ensure our citizens are educated. Why are we now reversing this seemingly and seeking to prohibit citizens–especially the poor for whom, arguably, public education is the last real hope for their children–from achieving this right? This is unconscionable to me.

    There are ways for districts to work out the return of per pupil costs to the home district where the student should have enrolled. This can be done simply and efficiently, and usually is, without turning the suffering of others into a political lightning rod and showcase.

    Education is not about politicking and pontificating, though regrettably it has moved to those arenas. Education enables others to grow in their understanding, tolerance, compassion, and solution building so that all may benefit. Since when have we become such a shameful nation that we now turn away from and scorn those who clearly need our help? This is profoundly shocking, at least to me.

  6. The notion that there are a lot of people sneaking their kids into Norwalk schools strains credulity–this particular elementary school is Title I and 80% minority. It’s laughable to think that a parent living in any of its surrounding towns, which have some of the finest public schools in America, would smuggle their child into Norwalk’s schools instead.

    No, I suspect that this homeless woman’s case is being used to fire a warning shot at legitimate taxpaying Norwalk residents who are “illegally” registering their children at Norwalk schools that they aren’t technically zoned for. Norwalk, you see, is hyper segregated by race and income, with good schools in the wealthy areas and bad schools in the poor areas. And you’d have to pry any revision to the zoning arrangements from the well-to-do folks’s cold dead hands.

  7. And just to really clarify here: how is it a penalty to fine someone who has no money? Is this really a disincentive? Do we really think this even penetrates a stressed person’s consciousness in a meaningful way that they now owe even more money?

    I think not. This is not a solution. Incurring additional fees or sanctions typically does not matter to someone after they have reached a certain level of indigence. Ramping up fees and penalties is not a solution in the long run for situations such as this. The only thing this does is inflate the receivables ledgers of the institutions adding the fees.

    There should be more intuitive and authentic solution building for these types of circumstances that (a) stop the decline of the client and (b) mediate the relationship and develop reparations with the institution identifying a loss as a result of a client’s action. I am sure with the talent base in the world today better solutions can be developed, simply and usefully.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There are two issues here.

    The first is moral. In my more reflective moments, I sometimes think that the current real-estate tied school apportionment system is really, really unfair. It’s clearly not a matter of pure economics: we require the same taxes of a family with ten children and a family with no children when they live in the same district. So the principle cannot possible be “You have to pay some just share of the costs.” It’s also clearly not a matter of convenience: if you’re using someone else’s house in the district, the district just has to send mail to that address. It’s up to the “thief” to pick it up. No one is inconvenienced. This leads me to think that the real motivation in geographically partitioning the schools (rather than, say, doing it on a purely academic basis or on a lottery system or somesuch) is a little more ugly than that: we have to keep those people out so we can have the best school here in Pleasantville.

    Y’all know me, and know that I don’t descend into language like this very often. I’m not a big fan of “social justice” or any of that nonsense. But I also can’t help seeing in prosecutions like this the hand of government being used to benefit a few at the expense of those of the many who want to better their stations in life. The whole think smacks somewhat of keeping the proles in their place, which is something that my very American morality finds as offensive as kneeling to monarchs.

    The second issue is a legal issue. I’m not convinced (though I haven’t looked very closely) that the standards for what qualifies as “residence” in these cases is clear enough to be sending people to jail. There are federal, and perhaps state, Constitutional issues that have to be complied with in criminal prosecutions. Is it enough if the kids stays over 4 nights a month in the district? Eats 12 meals? How about stays over 1 night? What if the kid thinks pleasantly about a house in the district?

    I’m descending into the ridiculous, but I’m also making a point. Unless there are clear and defined standards for what counts as residency, the law and the prosecutions are violative of due process.

    Like I said, I’ve not looked very closely at these cases, so for all I know the statute actually requires 811 hours of physically being in the district and they proved that the kid was only there 810 hours. Fine, whatever. But I have what I think is a reasonable suspicion that this is not the case.

  9. To Tim’s point, which is a good one: then those districts should prosecute a middle class or upper class family that is doing the same thing. Then people might care. Otherwise, this is just a another “story about the hapless poor.”

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    Michael Lopez: “This leads me to think that the real motivation in geographically partitioning the schools (rather than, say, doing it on a purely academic basis or on a lottery system or somesuch) is a little more ugly than that: we have to keep those people out so we can have the best school here in Pleasantville.”

    Well … yeah.

    And when one gets a mix of rich and poor, white and black/brown we find that the wealthy send their kids to private schools and/or a gifted program is created or a high performing school (maybe science based) is created, all three often with test scores used for admission (or as one component of admission).

    To a first approximation, parents purchase houses in a given location (or send their kids to a private school) to SELECT THEIR CHILDREN’S PEER GROUP. Letting *those* kids in defeats this purpose.

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    “The whole think smacks somewhat of keeping the proles in their place…”

    Not so much ‘in their place’ as ‘away from us and our kids.’ California has fairly flat K-12 funding, but the parents in Palo Alto still don’t want their kids going to school with the kids from east San Jose [even if safety is a non-issue, which is largely is for the earlier grades].

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Yeah, but if you want to self-segregate in a private school, more power to you.

    You shouldn’t get government to do your dirty work, though.

  13. Belinda Gomez says:

    The homeless might pay some sales and income taxes (which they get back as earned income tax credit and refunds) but they don’t pay property taxes, so, no they’re not actually supporting the school. This woman’s lack of ability to plan might be a reason she’s struggling–why didn’t she just use the Norwalk shelter address? If you read the news story linked, she’s doing all sorts of weird stuff–she stays with some guy, she’s at the shelter, she’s got money to pay a babysitter– and then there’s her previous record

    Before this, McDowell had been arrested twice by the Norwalk Police in the past year. In November, she was arrested on drug charges, and in February, she was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree breach of peace after allegedly threatening her babysitter. At the time of her arrests, McDowell acknowledged that she lives in Bridgeport.

    The kid needs more help than just what school he goes to.

  14. Stacy in NJ says:

    This is just another screwed up situation that developed because we are unable/unwilling to be honest with poor people.

  15. It is often the case that in circumstances like this families simply do not have the time or resources to puzzle through the intracacies of complex systems.

    Clearly, this family had the time and resources not only to puzzle through the “complex system” but then actually try to cheat it.

    It’s clearly not a matter of pure economics: we require the same taxes of a family with ten children and a family with no children when they live in the same district.

    It clearly is a matter of economics. People don’t pay taxes as a function of being a parent, but as a function of being a taxpayer. The system’s economics are not derived from the number of children a person has, but it’s still very clearly a matter of economics.

    I’m not convinced (though I haven’t looked very closely) that the standards for what qualifies as “residence” in these cases is clear enough to be sending people to jail.

    She lied. Have you looked clearly at the definition of that? The district defined a set of criteria and she misrepresented herself as meeting that criteria. If she didn’t misrepresent herself, the issue would revolve around residency, but since she lied, your entire line of reasoning here (like, in fact, much of your post) is irrelevant.

    You all do realize that in California, most schools get their money from the state? So all the talk about Palo Alto and East San Jose is nonsense? (To say nothing of the fact that Palo Altoans share a border with East Palo Alto, and Paly High has tons of Hispanics, but I digress.)

    Keeping out others should just been seen as one of the prices of maintain public schools in the U.S.

    This is exactly right. You can allow taxpayers to control the environments of their public schools, or you can force them to accept all comers and lose support/funding. Can’t have both.

  16. Soapbox0916 says:

    @Belinda

    So only homeowners that pay property taxes should be able to send their kids to school?

    Property taxes only pay for a portion of education costs. I mainly know the Indiana tax structure, but sales and income taxes also pays into education as well. On my Indiana income tax form, I have to report which school district I fall under, and I am single with no kids, but still my income taxes support education.When I was grad student for my MPA a few years back, I actually did a long term research project on school financing. So this topic hits me personally in more than one way.

    I have actually helped homeless people and near-homeless people with their tax returns and they often pay a lot more taxes than people would think, it really surprised me, and they don’t necessarily get it back through earned income credit or refunds. It is really case by case and a lot more complicated than one would ever want to imagine. They are also much more likely to get money back if someone knowledgeable is helping them with their finances, that is too often not the case, so I find that a whole lot of poor people don’t claim in theory what they could.

    Also, renters pay property taxes indirectly through their rent because landlords do
    pass that cost down to renters. Many homeless are recent homeless or are homeless off and on, and therefore a lot have actually paid some rent in the somewhat near past.

    Forgive me for my over sensitivity, but what I see in reality contradicts a lot of what is written about the homeless and poor, so it is personally frustrating. Just trying to offer some alternative views based on what I see firsthand.

    @Michael
    You raise a good point about the legal issues. From what I can tell of this situation, there is no clear legal policy on this particular situation, unless by rare chance that I highly doubt, there is a clear local policy. Otherwise this fall under a case by case basis that is determined what is best by the appointed homeless representatives of the school districts.

    Even the so-called clear polices for dealing with homeless children have lots of exceptions and nuances, so it case-by-case. For example, one of the few so –called clear polices from the feds is that if a child is not homeless at the beginning of the school year but becomes homeless during the school year, then the school districts have to allow them to stay in that school that they begun at the beginning of the school year including busing them there if that is what the parent wants, but that does not apply in this case.

    I really have trouble belieiving that they have that strong of a case with a “homeless child” since this is a legal grey zone at best. I agree that this probably meant to be an example to others.

  17. So only homeowners that pay property taxes should be able to send their kids to school?

    No. She was correcting your rebuttal. You were whining that homeless people pay taxes, too, when in fact the tax under discussion was property taxes. Belinda corrected your post. Hint: when someone talks about “paying taxes” vis a vis a school discussion, you shouldn’t come charging in righteously saying that homeless people pay taxes, too, unless you are specifically referring to property taxes (which you were not, in your original post).

    And your oversensitivity is unforgiven. Get over yourself. It’s not about you.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    When I saith:


    I’m not convinced (though I haven’t looked very closely) that the standards for what qualifies as “residence” in these cases is clear enough to be sending people to jail.

    Then did Cal Saith:


    She lied. Have you looked clearly at the definition of that? The district defined a set of criteria and she misrepresented herself as meeting that criteria. If she didn’t misrepresent herself, the issue would revolve around residency, but since she lied, your entire line of reasoning here (like, in fact, much of your post) is irrelevant.

    OK. Breaking rule 47 and blog-commenting while really pissed off at someone.

    You’ve been exceedingly rude to a number of people as of late, including me, and while I’m normally willing to be indulgent because I like lively debate and I appreciate being called on it when I’m wrong, or even when someone has a reasonable basis for thinking I might be wrong, I’m not going to sit here meekly be talked down to and called “irrelevant” by someone who, by the very structure of their critique, demonstrates that she not only didn’t really understand what I was saying but also broadcasts that she lack the tools to think effectively about it even if she had understood it.


    She lied. Have you looked clearly at the definition of that?

    She’s not going to jail for perjury, but for larceny. Why would I look at the definition of something that is completely irrelevant to the potential defense to the charge that I’m discussing? Because you think is should?

    Here’s Connecticut’s definition of larceny:


    A person commits larceny when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner.

    So the key question here is whether availing herself of these educational benefits for her child was “wrongful.” If it’s not wrongful, then it’s not larceny. I realize that her lying upsets your sensibilities, and it goes a long way towards establishing the requisite intent, but pissing off Cal isn’t a standard for throwing people in jail (especially not lately). She could lie all she wanted to about her address, and if she actually lived in the district anyway, then it wouldn’t matter for a larceny charge that she lied because she’d be taking her own property. You can lie about stealing your own stuff as much as you want, so long as you’re stealing your own stuff.


    The district defined a set of criteria and she misrepresented herself as meeting that criteria. If she didn’t misrepresent herself, the issue would revolve around residency

    As I said, she’s not risking jail because she lied about her address. That’s simply not the charge. The charge is that she helped herself to benefits to which she wasn’t entitled. One of the elements of the charge — an element that has to be proven separately from the element of intent — is that she did not have an entitlement to the property in question. (There’s actually the potential for a very specific question of whether public education benefits qualify as “property” under this statute, but I leave that to the good courts of the state of Connecticut without further comment.)

    The elements of larceny in this case need to be proven by the state, because this is a criminal matter and we have due process in this country. And because we have due process, we have to prove it in a way that comports with all sorts of Constitutional standards.

    Now, the way they determine who does and doesn’t get the benefit of school access is by having a “residency requirement.” I already stated quite plainly that I hadn’t looked up the statutes in question (though at least I thought about them for half a second which is clearly more than you did) so I don’t know whether residency is defined in a clear enough way for it to be the basis of a criminal charge. But the thinking goes something like this:

    * You can’t send someone to jail based on a vague statute. (See, e.g., the Fifth and 14th Amendments and supporting caselaw on the topic of “vagueness”.)

    * The woman is being sent to jail (or risks it, anyway — this is a pretty serious criminal charge) because of her lack of a legal status defined by statute.

    * If the residency statute is sufficiently vague, the status it confers is not going to be permitted by a court to serve as the basis for meeting the element of a criminal charge, because a person has to be able to know what their status is under the statute in question.

    Now, you might say that she lied and thus she not only didn’t meet the status requirements, but must have known that she didn’t meet the status requirements, and therefore was on notice. But the question of evidence of constructive or effective notice is only going to be relevant in the actual determination of the specific intent portions (if any) of the larceny trial. It’s somewhat irrelevant to a Constitutional attack on a statute.

    Now this particular defendant is in a rather curious position: she can not only make a facial attack on the application of the residency statute as the basis for criminal liability, but she can make an as applied attack on the statute because of her homelessness and her unique position vis-a-vis the typical American practice of having stable, fixed addresses.

    But in none of these cases is the Constitutional question settled by mere reference to the fact that the woman lied or misrepresented anything.

    So there. Nanny nanny boo boo. Who’s irrelevant now?

    I’ll be in hell waiting for a snowstorm and an apology.

  19. Good lord, dude, get over yourself. I’m certainly not going to apologize. I wasn’t even rude. Long post saying nothing.

    So the key question here is whether availing herself of these educational benefits for her child was “wrongful.”

    Yes. Which is why lying comes into it. Not because it was perjury, nor because I just don’t like it. But because lying to obtain something is WRONGFUL. She took the education through a wrongful act (lying). She probably signed something saying that her answers on the school forms were truthful (although I’m not sure, it seems likely). She knowingly misrepresented facts in order to obtain a desired outcome.

    As I said, she’s not risking jail because she lied about her address. That’s simply not the charge.

    Yeah, she really is risking jail because she lied about her address. If you can’t figure that out, I don’t know what to tell you.

    See how much less time it took me to explain this? Really, there’s nothing wrong with long posts, but they should have something other than self-satisfied blathering in them.

  20. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Hmmm. I thought I responded to this already, but perhaps I said something intemperate and Joanne erased it or I just closed the window or something.

    Cal Saith:


    Yes. Which is why lying comes into it. Not because it was perjury, nor because I just don’t like it. But because lying to obtain something is WRONGFUL. She took the education through a wrongful act (lying).

    Look, there is a legal difference between an act committed through WRONGFUL means and an act which is in itself wrongful. The one does not imply the other, despite your childish insistence and all the CAPITAL LETTERS in the world. The former is what you’re asserting, while the latter it what is required by the larceny statute: a wrongful taking.


    She probably signed something saying that her answers on the school forms were truthful (although I’m not sure, it seems likely). She knowingly misrepresented facts in order to obtain a desired outcome.

    …both of which might be the basis for a charge of perjury, which I’d swear you just got finished agreeing wasn’t the legal claim against her.

    Do you understand that if I pull out a gun, hold it to your head, and while shouting out racial slurs in a state of public drunkenness relieve you of MY property that I am not thereby necessarily engaging in a wrongful taking? As bad as I am, I’m guilty of assault, perhaps battery, perhaps hate crimes, perhaps public drunkenness, but not larceny as commonly defined? (Perhaps on some wordings of larceny statutes I could be convicted — jurisdictions vary, after all — but generally speaking you just can’t steal your own stuff.)


    Yeah, she really is risking jail because she lied about her address.

    Only in the sense that I already admitted — that the lying is probative of the specific intent elements of the crime of larceny.

    Am I a self-satisfied blatherer? Perhaps. But as with many other not-so-subtle distinctions that seem to be eluding you at the moment, this is not the same thing as saying that I’m wrong.

    Like I’ve said, I don’t mind a good internet mix-up. And arguing about educational things with you is fun because it’s not clear that either of us substantially outclasses the other — you’re a bit better at the quantificational stuff while I think I might have a better grasp of some of the theoretical pedagogy issues, but we’re more or less punching at the same weight. But this is a legal fight you’ve picked, and it’s becoming clear that you’re in over your head. I’m starting to get that slightly sick feeling one gets sometimes in fencing or wrestling when the person against whom one is competing just isn’t up to it and you’re starting to feel vaguely sorry for their ineffectual flailing, so I’m going to stop now.

    If you want the last word, take it.

  21. Just curious, does this woman have a job? Why would she need a babysitter?

  22. “One woman has been evicted, another could go to jail and all because a little boy went to school in a district where he sometimes lives,” education writer Joanne Jacobs said of the case.

    NO NO NO Joanne,
    One woman may go to jail for perpetrating a fraud against the city of Norwalk, the other got evicted from taxpayer funded housing for aiding and abetting that fraud.Try as a liberal may to make this women a victim the law is the law. if you don’t like the law then work to change the law, until then they will get what the law says they deserve. The victim here is the taxpayers.

  23. I find this story really ridiculous. All this mother wanted was to give her child a good education so that they could have better life. I would understand facing arrest after trying to keep her child out of school, but in this case I can only feel sympathy for the woman. A country like the US should treat its citizens better no matter what their origin, background, or economic status.