[UPDATE] Homeless Connecticut Mom Pleads Guilty to Stealing an Education for Her Son

[UPDATE] McDowell received a sentence of 12 years for her crimes—drugs and larceny for stealing an education. She will serve five years in prison and another five years of probation after pleading guilty to the larceny charge and to four counts of the sale of narcotics.


The homeless mom in Connecticut who drew national attention when she was arrested for enrolling her son in kindergarten has brought her controversial case to a close by pleading guilty to fraud. I’m disappointed that this case won’t be going to trial, as a test to see how the system could convict a homeless person for stealing something the government describes as “free.”

But though she was homeless in 2011 when she was arrested for school “theft,” Tonya McDowell (pictured) turned out to not be the best poster child for this issue—she also pleaded guilty to selling crack and marijuana to undercover officers two months after her school theft arrest.

After her guilty plea, McDowell will be going away for a total of five years—another severe blow in the life of her son.

McDowell’s case drew the attention and ire of commentators, columnists and civil rights activists like Rev. Al Sharpton because of its uniqueness. Schools have been battling Americans for decades over residency questions, especially in the suburbs, which have tried desperately to lock down their borders to keep out those pesky (read: black) urban kids. One Ohio woman, Kelley Williams-Bolar, served nine days in jail last year after she was convicted of lying about her residency so that she could send her two daughters to the suburban Copley-Fairlawn School District outside of Akron. As an education reporter and as a parent, I have seen the residency question flipped around, massaged, pierced and argued from every possible side: Since public education is supposed to be free and equal, then the system isn’t working if urban residents are forced to lie about their residence in order to escape failing city schools, right? Or, why should suburban taxpayers have to pay more to subsidize the educations of children whose sneaky parents are getting the top-notch education without paying the (usually) significantly higher tax rates? The debates were endless, with no clear answers—and in the meantime, some districts would go so far as to hire private detectives to catch those who were trying to steal better educations.

But this case was different. McDowell was homeless. She and her son lived part of the time in a van, or in an emergency shelter. She had no permanent residence to speak of, so she used her babysitter’s address to enroll her child in Norwalk instead of Bridgeport, which was her last permanent address. Every child is entitled to an education—even those who have no home. In McDowell’s shoes, wouldn’t you pick the best school you could for your child? Maybe if you picked well enough, your son would be able to avoid the cycle of poverty that left you in such dire straits.

But that’s not how the system saw it. McDowell was accused of felony larceny for trying to steal an education—$15,686 worth of education in a good district. It was a great challenge to the whole concept of free public education. But then came the vials of crack and those pesky undercover officers. Oh well. Case closed.


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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. It is still a great challenge and poses an opportunity for larger questions and in-depth discussion beyond “Oh well. Case closed.” Her other charges are irrelevant here and have no bearing on whether she’s a poster child for trying to get access to a decent public education. She totally is. Let’s all be real: In “stealing” an education for her child, McDowell was doing what wealthier, savvy, dedicated, caring white parents do all the time without any consequences (some of whom use and sell drugs, too, BTW). Her biggest mistake is that she tried to get a good education for her baby while being Black and poor.

  2. Yes yes!!!! It is a totally flawed system. How can access to good education have a cost!?! This is a basic need that has to be fulfilled – the need to learn, grow, and become productive citizens. This woman didn’t have any of her basic needs met – and that is sad. She even had to resort to any means to survive and make it, they best way she knew how.

    We are going to have to start standing up and protesting this flawed system. Or is it just to each its own?

  3. Say it again Aaryn B. Say it again.

  4. Case closed because the child of someone who” allegedly” deals crack doesn’t deserve a good education? Maybe officials realized this was such a good test case for education that they knew a homeless person couldn’t beat a drug charge (thinking about that Dave Chappelle about cops planting crack on a unconscious suspect).

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