The Great Norwalk Kindergarten Heist

The Tanya McDonald controversy

A homeless woman is facing 20 years in prison if she is convicted of stealing over $15,000 of Norwalk, Conn. taxpayer funds. The details of her crime are controversial: she lied about her residence to get her child into what she believed was a better school system, but one that, as non-resident, she was not entitled to use. The details also create a tangled mess of law, justice, ethics, fairness, compassion, public policy, finances, class and education.

Let’s try to unravel it, shall we?

  • Ethics: Tanya McDonald allegedly used her babysitter’s address to enroll her 5-year-old child at Norwalk’s Brookside elementary school last fall. Her last official address was Bridgeport, Conn., which does not have as good a school system; indeed, some would say it has an awful school system. If true, this was cheating. The argument, passionately expressed in the blogosphere, that she was justified in lying to get her child a better education is essentially the same one that aims to excuse law-breaking by illegal immigrants who enter the U.S. to seek a better future for their children. It is an invalid argument. There are rules and laws regulating who is permitted to use a community’s schools, and the fact that those rules and laws are inconvenient does not make violating them acceptable, permissible, or defensible. It is admirable that Ms. McDonald wants the best for her child. However, she is limited in pursuing that objective to rules, laws, and principles of ethics, like honesty. Are the rules and laws unfair? If so, her ethical course is to work to change them.
  • Law: Is she really not a resident of Norwalk if, as she says, she often sleeps there? Did she have the requisite intent to violate the law, if she only gave someone else’s address because, as a homeless person, she has no address of her own? A trial will decide. It sounds like a weak defense to me, but you never know.
  • Law and legal ethics: Even if she is guilty, is it reasonable, kind, compassionate or fair to treat her actions as grand larceny, when all she was trying to do was have her child attend a better kindergarten? No. The prosecution is excessive, even though, as the Mayor of Norwalk had pointed out, the mother has a criminal record. Her actions may have had the result of a technical theft, but money was not the object of her lie. There are also elements of Lindsay Lohan’s stolen necklace here. You may recall that the charges against Lohan were reduced because it was determined that the necklace she allegedly stole was not worth what the store said it was. Does anyone believe that a year of kindergarten for one student in Norwalk, Conn. is worth $15,684, as the city contends?
  • Education policy and competence: By what insane logic and bonehead mismanagement does Norwalk spend over $15,000 a year per student in public school?
  • Ethics and fairness: The Great School blog sniffs that the mother has “been targeted for criminal prosecution for a practice which is so common as to be de riguer in some circles. ‘In New York everyone does it,’ one mother recently told me. ‘You talk about it at cocktail parties.'”  There are lots of rebuttals to this, all of which should be obvious. The fact that New York chooses to let parents cheat and get the benefit of schools they haven’t paid for creates no obligation for Norwalk to do the same, nor does New York’s foolishness make Norwalk’s prosecution an example of unequal enforcement of the law, as the blogger, Carol Lloyd, seems to think. Different states, different cities, different laws, different law enforcement policies and officials, all determined through the process called democracy. Meanwhile, “everybody does it” does not make “it” right, though plenty of people like Lloyd work hard, every day, to convince our culture to hold otherwise.
  • Public policy, education, and fairness: The real villain in this story is the disparate quality of schools, critics say. Perhaps, though the plight of a homeless, single mother with a criminal record who breaks the rules and is caught in a lie is perhaps not the best evidence to rely on. Even if it was, arguing that just allowing all parents to enroll their children in the best school systems regardless of whether they are paying for it or where they live is irresponsible, because such a system would lead to chaos. It would ensure that the bad schools would never improve, because no one would be motivated to fix them, and over-crowd the good schools while straining their resources until they weren’t good any more.

Tanya McDonald isn’t a hero; she’s a cheat with good intentions. She shouldn’t be encouraged or applauded, and Norwalk must insist on some punishment, so that others won’t be emboldened to do what she apparently did.  Disparity between schools in neighboring communities is inevitable. Each community is responsible for its own schools, and those that do a good job meeting that responsibility shouldn’t be penalized by having to educate, gratis, students from communities that don’t do as good a job. That would be neither fair nor responsible. Some have suggested that Bridgeport pay Norwalk for the education of McDonald’s child. Ridiculous: it should spend that money on improving its own system.

A twenty year sentence, however, for fraudulently enrolling a 5-year-old in a kindergarten class is indefensibly excessive. Putting McDonald in jail would be more unethical than anything she did on behalf of her child.

8 thoughts on “The Great Norwalk Kindergarten Heist

  1. You know, they probably take the whole year’s expenses and divide it by the number of students, that gives them the $15,000. However, if you look at the expenses with and without the added child, the difference is probably more like $500, if that. I don’t have any facts or citations, it’s only my opinion that $500 is probably what it is. The judge, or defense, should make the prosecution show how the school would have saved $15,000 if the child were not enrolled.

    Also, isn’t it a crime to not enroll your child? Is it last known address that makes her a resident of Bridgeport? Would getting evicted from a hotel room in Norwalk have made her a resident of Norwalk?

    • Regarding what she “stole”: that was my thinking too. And a person who was sufficiently poor in Norwalk wouldn’t be required to pay full taxes, so the $15,000 figure isn’t accurate in that way either. As to what makes one a “resident” in Connecticut, I don’t know. Can a homeless parent whose kid learns the lessons of the street claim to be homeschooling?

  2. Pingback: The Great Norwalk Kindergarten Heist | Γονείς σε Δράση

  3. How about a bit of restorative justice: a sentence for this
    woman of a reasonable fine, plus community service to be
    performed within her child’s proper school district,
    improving it both by her own service and by calling
    attention by her well-publicized example to the need for
    better schools in that district?

    Such a sentence might also raise consciousness as to the
    disparities in funding and quality of education between
    districts, maybe promoting steps (e.g. legislative) for
    greater distributive justice.

    • Now there is an aspiration: using such cases to actually address the underlying problem rather than blunt and dubious enforcement. I suspect that the job of devising such things and seeing them put into action doesn’t exist—in Norwalk or anywhere else.

  4. I think the above comments about the costs are on the money. The city of Norwalk probably does spend an average of $15,000/year for each child in their school system. That actually sounds about right. However, there is no way that this particular family would be paying $15,000/year in taxes towards that school system had she actually lived there. If there has to be a fine, calculate what she realistically would have paid into the school system. Then sentence her to some community service as a deterrent to others.

    Now as for the ethics of claiming they lost $15,000. If I were a betting man, I would bet if you look in the budget, you would find a lot of STATE funding and probably some FEDERAL funding. That funding was probably a flat amount (no matter how many children were enrolled) or per student, which included Ms. McDonald’s child. So they did actually receive some of that $15,000 they claim they ‘lost’. Not only is that unethical, I would think that claiming something was ‘stolen’ when you actually received it when pressing criminal charges would be illegal. Filing a false police report, anyone?

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