The college cheating scandal that has ensnared at least 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, has sparked a much-needed conversation about privilege and money in the U.S. educational system. And while the scam has also produced lots of funny commentary due to the sheer ridiculousness of the lengths these parents went to get their kids into college (like photoshopping their kids’ faces onto stock photos of athletes) and the level of privilege these people have (Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade was literally on the yacht of a billionaire when the news broke), what’s not funny is how lower-income people fare when they try to get a better education for their children. One stark example of wealth inequality in education is the case of Tanya McDowell, who went to prison for enrolling her son in the wrong school district.
In 2011, McDowell, a homeless Bridgeport, CT mom, was arrested and charged with first-degree larceny for enrolling her then 5-year-old son Andrew in a school in neighboring Norwalk. McDowell at the time said she and her son were able to sleep at an apartment in Bridgeport at night, but during the day had to leave, and lived in her van or at shelters. McDowell also had prior drug charges. A police source who worked on McDowell’s drug case told Refinery29 once she was picked up for dealing drugs to an undercover officer again after her arrest for the school larceny, she lost a lot of community support. “It was a very unfortunate thing that happened with education. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t the only one who got arrested at that time,” he said. “I think she was just dealing drugs to support herself.”
Video: Huffman Sentenced to 14 Days in Admissions Scandal
Rebecca J. Kavanagh, a New York City public defender, told Refinery29 while it’s uncommon for parents to be arrested for sending their kids to a school outside their district, it does happen.
“In Ohio, Kelley Williams-Bolar was charged for lying about her residency to get her child into a better school and ordered to pay restitution of $30,000,” she said. “When she didn’t pay it she was sent to jail for 15 days.”
McDowell eventually took a plea deal and was sentenced to five years in prison for the charges connected to sending her son to school in the Norwalk school district. “Who would have thought that wanting a good education for my son would put me in this predicament?” McDowell said at her sentencing for the drug charges, in which she got a 12-year suspended sentence, plus five years probation; the sentences ran concurrently. “I have no regrets seeking a better education for him, I do regret my participation in this drug case.”
In a 2017 interview with The Hour after her release, McDowell said while she was in prison, her son lived with her mother and excelled in school. “I would still do it all over again because I haven’t been let down,” she said. “My son exceeded all of my expectations.” At the time of the interview, McDowell still owed the school district money for her son’s “stolen” education.
All public education in the U.S. is not created equal, which oftentimes forces parents from low-income backgrounds to use the addresses of friends and family members to get their child into a better school district. It should come as no surprise that those most impacted by this disparity in funding are people of color: A recent study found that white school districts have gotten $23 billion more in state and local funding than predominately nonwhite districts.
Huffman and Loughlin had every resource — wealth, connections, and huge platforms — at their disposal, and still chose to cheat for their children. “This is really just an extension of what people do to get admitted to university already — donating money to buy buildings and fund endowments,” Kavanagh said the college cheating scandal. “Jared Kushner was admitted to Harvard after his father donated $2.5 million, for instance. The line between legal and illegal, donation and bribe, is blurred.”
Kavanagh continued: “While there is a part of us that may feel some sense of vindication at the idea of these parents serving five years in prison because Tanya McDowell served five years in prison when she was so much more deserving, that’s not justice. Justice is for Tanya McDowell to have never been charged, convicted or sentenced to prison and to have the same educational opportunity for her son as these parents have for their children.”
In a system that already favors the rich, moms like McDowell face few other options in trying to secure quality education for their children. “I’m not only doing it for Andrew,” McDowell told The Hour. “I’m doing it for any other parent, any other child out there that has the potential to exceed and excel at a certain level and is just being deprived, period.”