The Connecticut woman has been charged with larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk Public Schools for enrolling her son in an elementary school even though she didn't have a permanent address in the city. If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in prison.
McDowell, 33, is homeless and single. She was arrested April 14 and told police that she lived part-time in a Norwalk shelter. She was accused of using a friend's address to enroll her 5-year-old son in Norwalk elementary school in September. Norwalk officials said her latest address was in Bridgeport, Connecticut's poorest city, and said McDowell should have enrolled her son there instead.
McDowell, who pleaded not guilty today at her arraignment today in Connecticut Superior Court, said she was trying to provide a better education for her son. "I wanted to send my child to a great school. What kind of crime are you committing by doing that?" McDowell told the Hartford Courant. "I want the best education possible. All I wanted was the best for him."
If McDowell's protestations sound familiar, it's because this has happened before. In January, Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Ohio mom of two, was arrested for sending her daughters to the Copley-Fairlawn district where her father lives and was later convicted of falsifying records. She has said that the schools in Akron, where she lives, were not good enough for her children.
Outside a Norwalk courthouse this morning, activists supporting McDowell said giving their children a decent education shouldn't be a crime.
Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parent's Union, which lobbies to close the racial achievement gap, said parents will continue to do whatever is necessary to send their children to the best schools.
She said jail time wouldn't be a deterrent to a determined parent. "If I had to go to prison to get my child in a good school, I would," Samuel told AOL News today by phone. "But we shouldn't have to do those things."
Like the Ohio case, McDowell's story has provoked outrage and sparked a fierce debate over the impact that class, race and ZIP codes have on a student's opportunity for education. McDowell and Williams-Bolar are black.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia noted that McDowell has a criminal record. "This is not a poor, picked-upon homeless person," he told Fox News. "This is an ex-con, and somehow the city of Norwalk is made into the ogre in this. She has a checkered past at best."
McDowell was arrested in November for marijuana possession and served 18 months in 2001 for robbery and weapons offenses, according to the New York Daily News.
Samuel said Williams-Bolar hoped to speak at a rally this morning outside the Norwalk courthouse, but she was not allowed to travel because of she is on probation.
Moccia had no further comment to AOL News today.