HARTFORD, Conn. — A homeless single mother's arrest on charges she intentionally enrolled her son in the wrong school district by using her baby sitter's address is raising questions about uneven enforcement of residency rules as budget-conscious cities nationwide crack down on out-of-towners in their classrooms.
Tanya McDowell's arrest in Norwalk last month came a few months after Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, was convicted of falsifying records for using her father's address to send her children to safer suburban schools.
Yet in Connecticut, Ohio and elsewhere throughout the U.S., officials acknowledge parents are routinely caught doing the same thing but rarely face criminal charges.
McDowell and Williams-Bolar are low-income black single mothers, a fact that disturbs civil rights activists who question whether they are being singled out unfairly.
McDowell returns to court Wednesday in Norwalk, where she is charged with felony larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 of educational services by enrolling her 5-year-old in kindergarten last fall under her baby sitter's Norwalk public housing unit address. The baby sitter was later evicted.
McDowell's attorney didn't return messages this week for comment.
Norwalk school officials found 26 other children illegally enrolled during the same time, but McDowell is the only one facing criminal charges. And in the Ohio case, the Copley-Fairlawn district removed about 50 out-of-towners from its schools in the past few years but only Williams-Bolar ended up before a judge.
No government agencies or education advocacy groups track the number of students discovered to be illegally enrolled in the wrong districts nationwide and how the cases are resolved. Many states, including Connecticut, let local districts decide how aggressively to enforce the rules.
"I understand you want to give districts autonomy on how they handle things, but it doesn't make sense that some families are eased out quietly and other parents are arrested," said Gwen Samuels, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union advocacy group and one of McDowell's supporters.
Samuels said she doesn't advocate more arrests; on the contrary, she believes the cases show how desperately parents want access to better schools and highlight what she calls "a moral problem of how we view educating children."
The issue is particularly thorny in states where cities, not larger counties, run school districts and just an invisible town border can separate a troubled urban district from wealthier suburbs.
David Singleton, Williams-Bolar's attorney in the Ohio case, said he doesn't think race was a factor in her arrest, but believes it was driven by her inability to reimburse the Copley-Fairlawn district – something that wealthier families could do quietly and put the matter behind them, while she ended up with a felony conviction.
"It is, in our view, an uneven enforcement that comes down mostly to poverty," said Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. "The criminalization of this is really troubling. To the extent we see people prosecuted, I think it's mostly going to be people who are unable to afford to pay their way out of it."
Many districts in Connecticut and elsewhere employ residency investigators to check questionable addresses, and several have pointed to budget problems as they've announced more aggressive enforcement programs.
"I think this comes to a head in times such as now, when districts are trying to get the most for their own residents out of every dollar they spend," said Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "As school districts are having to fight for literally every dollar, there's less latitude for these gray areas."
Noted Connecticut attorney James Bergenn said those gray areas are exactly what makes such cases tricky, both from a legal standpoint and in public perception.
"Criminal law is supposed to be reserved for things that are black and white, unequivocally wrong. To some degree, you can erode confidence in the justice system when you prosecute one person out of hundreds and when you prosecute them for something that many of us would look at and think, 'Well, I can understand doing that,'" said Bergenn, who doesn't represent McDowell.
Prosecutors say McDowell told Norwalk authorities she lived in Bridgeport and never indicated she was homeless.
Housing authorities who evicted McDowell's baby sitter referred McDowell's case to police and prosecutors. Norwalk school officials say the criminal charges were not their idea – though they defended their right to remove out-of-town students to preserve limited tax dollars for the children of those who bear the cost.
In Fort Lee, N.J., school officials recently formed a committee to step up residency investigations. School officials in Beverly Hills, Calif., also updated their rules to require that students must live in the city seven days a week – not five days, as before – to be considered a resident.
And in San Francisco, school officials identified about 300 students last year whose families used false addresses to get into the district's most sought-after schools. Offenders had to withdraw and pay up to $5,000 to reimburse the investigative costs, but none of the parents was criminally prosecuted.
Even in communities that have taken their disputes to court, parents have rarely ended up with a criminal record, as Williams-Bolar did. She is appealing the decision and awaits a hearing before the state's parole board in hopes of a pardon.
In Connecticut, a review of recent news clippings found a handful of residency-related arrests of parents in recent years other than McDowell, including a New Haven pastor who sent his children to suburban schools under his great-aunt's address.
In that case and two others in recent years, the parents eventually were granted a form of special probation that later removed the criminal charges from their records.