Homeless Mom Tanya McDowell in Prison for Enrolling Son in Nicer School District

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A single, homeless mother was sentenced in March of 2012 to five years in prison after enrolling her son in her babysitter’s school district.

Prosecutors charged Tanya McDowell, 34, with grand larceny after allegedly stealing $16,000 worth of education costs for her son by enrolling him in a Norwalk, Conn. kindergarten instead of one in a nearby town of Bridgeport, which is the location of McDowell’s last known address.

Tanya McDowell, 34, said she split her time sleeping at a Norwalk shelter and in her van, and that her son went to his babysitter’s house every day after school. McDowell said she feels she hasn’t done anything wrong by using her babysitter’s address to enroll her son.

“He’s only 5 years old, and it’s hard like to explain to a 5-year-old kid, you know, ‘You got kicked out because we don’t have a steady address yet,’” said McDowell before her sentencing.

The poorer, more urban Bridgeport school district is twice the size of Norwalk’s, which attracted McDowell to use a false address. The scarcity of tax dollars, however, has made this issue important for lawmakers to enforce.

This school district-hopping charge is the first known case in Connecticut. The details of the case, specifically that McDowell is homeless and black, has drawn the attention of civil rights groups advocating for McDowell’s cause. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided McDowell a lawyer, who negotiated a plea bargain in April, reducing the possible 20-year prison sentence and $15,000 in fines to five years in prison.