stealing an education


[for the 3/12/12 Mole] What does it mean to steal an education? According to several school districts, it means providing questionable address information, at least if you're Black.

Jen Roesch, writing in, reports on the case of Tanya McDowell, a homeless, Black single mother, sentenced to 12 years in prison in Connecticut for using her babysitter's address to enroll her son in a Norwalk school:

When school officials discovered that her son was improperly enrolled, they didn't simply remove him, as they had done with 25 other students that year. They pushed for McDowell to be prosecuted on first-degree larceny charges, which carry up to a 20-year prison sentence….

[The] case expose[s] massive educational disparities in our country.

….the Bridgeport school system, where Norwalk officials insist McDowell's son should have been sent, has a one-in-four high school dropout rate. The Bridgeport public schools spend around $8,000 per pupil each year. Tanya McDowell was charged with "stealing" $15,686 in educational services for her son--the amount Norwalk schools spend per pupil each year.

According to a study conducted by Brown University, the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metropolitan region is the most income-segregated in the country and also among the most racially segregated…. An average Black student in Bridgeport attends a school with five times the poverty rate of a school attended by the average white student. … More than 50 percent of the census tracts in Bridgeport have unemployment rates over 10 percent.

But all this raises the question of just who is stealing from whom.

It seems clear from the mole persepctive that the inequitable funding of schools based on local property taxes, together with the iniquitous redistribution of resources upward, are robbing poor children of education. Last month The New York Times reported that “while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.” While it’s long been well known that parental income and education have a stronger influence on educational outcomes than schools themselves, the gap between kids from affluent and poor families is widening.

As Doug Henwood has pointed out, the Times article goes on to quote several right-wing sources about how the problem is not money and there are no easy answers, but, Henwood notes, this is clearly "Nonsense. The answers are conceptually easy, though politically anything but. You take money from rich people and give it to poor people, and spend at least as much, maybe more, educating the children of the poor as you do on the children of the rich."

In this light, the actions of McDowell, as well as of many unprosecuted white parents, can easily be understood as "direct action distributive justice."

In contrast, some on the right want to suggest that the phenomenon of parents' "stealing an education" is evidence of the obstacle that teachers' unions pose to good schooling, and thus a further argument for vouchers and charter schools. But of course these parents have been caught and prosecuted for stealing an education from another public school, and privatizing education only exacerbates the deprivations suffered by the poor.

As Henry Giroux has argued, market-based educational reform is part of "a neoliberal agenda in which public money is channeled into the hands of wealthy individuals and corporations. …[T]he ongoing infatuation with privatization and the push for charter schools [is] largely used to siphon off and privilege middle-class students, while promoting forms of tracking and social dumping that often mark underfunded public schools. There is also the push … to restructure the administrative apparatus in public schools as part of a broader political project to weaken the power of faculty and unions, while placing unaccountable power in the hands of corporate elites."

Although charter schools perform no better than public schools even by the dubious metrics of standardized testing, they are more profitable for the private sector, and at least one charter provider has found a way both to bring in more money and to increase the school's average test scores.

Chicago's Noble Street Charter Network has collected nearly $390,000 in disciplinary fines from low-income students for minor infractions like chewing gum or failing to make eye contact with teachers. Critics have objected that not only do these charges raise the cost of public education--forcing poor families to choose between paying the fines and paying the rent, or between keeping children in the school or keeping food on the table—but, by targeting students likely to bring down average test scores, and thus forcing poor families out of its schools, Noble Street can raise the average test scores in its schools.

One might argue, indeed, that Noble Street is stealing these children's education. So, too, one might argue that education is stolen from children forced to lose days of instruction to taking standardized tests. Education is stolen by policies that encourage teaching to the test rather than cultivating curiosity and critical thinking. It's stolen when Common Core Standards replace creative and culturally-appropriate curricula. It's stolen when budget cutting forces schools to eliminate electives, close libraries, and abandon enrichment programs. Education is stolen from students when teachers are demoralized by misleading measures of so-called value added, when teachers whose kids don’t do well on standardized tests are punished with bigger classes, less preparation time, and more mind-numbing "professional development," accelerating teacher burnout and, consequently, teacher turnover. Education is stolen when crony capitalism leads to the nutritional deprivation of school lunches of pink slime. Education is stolen when schools are closed.

But none of those thefts have been prosecuted, though all seem grander forms of larceny than Tanya McDowell's attempt to "steal" an education for her child. As Roesch notes, "The circumstances and series of events that led to McDowell's conviction reveal a tight connection between racism, poverty, segregation and a criminal justice system that punishes the poor and people of color disproportionately."

Three days after McDowell spoke at an education reform rally about her case, undercover police action led to her arrest on drug charges. Refusing to separate the larceny and drug charges, prosecutors extracted from McDowell a plea that resulted in a 12-year sentence with parole eligibility after five years.

Whether or not McDowell is guilty of the drug charges (a conclusion that isn't at all automatic), the media and prosecution's moralistic posturing cover up the systematic racism and inequality that permeate this case. According to all reports, McDowell last lived in Bridgeport, Conn., before becoming homeless. Bridgeport is an incredibly impoverished city existing in the shadows of some of the wealthiest areas in the country.

In the context of unemployment and poverty, she may also have sold drugs to make ends meet. This is not a sign of McDowell's lack of "worthiness" as a spokesperson for educational inequity, as many commentators like to argue. Instead, it is an indictment of a system that victimizes and scapegoats poor and working-class mothers, especially women of color. …

Largely because of the same harsh drug sentencing laws that forced McDowell into a plea bargain, women are now the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. More than 75 percent of those women are mothers and most were the sole caretaker for their children before they were incarcerated. Half of those women are Black. Their children are six times more likely to spend time in prison in the future.

Tanya McDowell's case exposed the rampant inequality in our education system and attracted support on that basis. But the fact that the city of Norwalk was able to successfully prosecute her also showed the way in which poor and working-class, Black, single mothers are increasingly the victims of racist scapegoating.

As politicians and the media attempt to shift the blame for disastrous social conditions, we need to stand with the Tanya McDowells of the world--and put the responsibility where it belongs.


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