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Mitchell: Public education is still separate and unequal

Updated: April 11, 2013 6:56AM

No one should be sent to prison for trying to get the best public education possible for his or her child.

But that’s where a single mother in Connecticut was sent for enrolling her 6-year-old son into a public school outside the district where she lives.

In 2011, Tanya McDowell, 34, of Bridgeport, Conn., was charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny, for illegally enrolling her son in the Norwalk public school system.

McDowell was accused of “stealing educational services” amounting to $15,686.

The single mother claimed she was homeless and living from pillar to post when she put her son in the Norwalk school.

Although McDowell had the support of the NAACP and garnered the support of national parent’s groups, she is no Rosa Parks.

McDowell has a criminal past that includes first-degree robbery and illegal drug possession, according to a news report.

Along with the education theft charges, McDowell also was charged with four counts of drug possession and sales.

McDowell accepted a plea deal — and was sentenced to five years in prison on the education theft charges.

Later, a judge sentenced the mother to 12 years on the drug charges, a sentence that will be suspended after five years. Afterward, she will be on probation for five years. McDowell will serve the drug sentence concurrently with the education theft sentence.

Obviously, the criminal charges make it easy to dismiss McDowell’s attempt to even the playing field for her child as just another criminal act.

But what about Kelley Williams-Bolar of Ohio?

Two years ago, prosecutors charged Williams-Bolar and her father of “falsifying residency records” so that two of Williams-Bolar’s children could attend a school outside of their school district.

The grandfather was charged with “aiding and abetting” his daughter, according to published reports.

Williams-Bolar lived in Akron, Ohio. She claimed she moved the children into her father’s house after her home was burglarized. Using her father’s address, she enrolled her daughters in the Copley-Fairlawn school district in Copley, Ohio.

But a jury convicted Williams-Bolar on the charges, and she was sentenced to 10 days in jail, three years of probation and community service.

Until the educational theft charges, Williams-Bolar had no criminal background.

But because she wanted her children in a safer school environment, the single mother is now a felon. That label will make it impossible to fulfill her goal of getting a teaching degree.

These two single mothers couldn’t be more different. Still, both of them wanted the same thing: the best public education for their children.

McDowell and Williams-Bolar’s actions help explain why CPS has such a fight on its hands when it comes to closing schools.

African-American parents have not had any qualms about sending their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods if it meant the students would gain access to better educational resources.

Parents are worried that CPS will uproot their children and leave them worse off.

Thankfully, Frank Clark, the former ComEd CEO gets that. Clark, who now heads up the Commission on School Utilization, said last week: “There is no reason to close schools unless they’re going to put kids in a better educational environment.

Like McDowell and Williams-Bolar, parents in low-income neighborhoods know that across town — in higher-income ZIP codes — there are public schools that are safer, that have better teachers and better outcomes.

It doesn’t help that nine out of 10 of the students likely affected by proposed school closings are black, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis.

I don’t believe Clark and Chicago Public Schools Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett could have avoided that outcome, given the city’s shifting demographics.

But the truth is, we are dealing with a public education system that is still separate and unequal, and these numbers appear to reflect that.

The public education system has already failed too many kids, and some parents are tired of hoping and praying and waiting for a change.

Frankly, the prosecution for “stealing education” is just another way of preserving the status quo.

Because instead of school districts doing more to erase the disparities, school officials are investing more resources into stopping poorer students from breaching their borders.

That’s both sad and absurd.

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