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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thief Me (Or, Giving a Six for a Nine in Providing Public Education)

Theft is, from a moral and legal perspective, a bad thing. Theft that occurs by lying, faking or other subterfuges as opposed to by good old-fashioned five-fingered grabbing is often considered even more reprehensible. Though typically thieves do no physical harm to their victims when they abscond with other people’s stuff, thieves are high on the list of most disliked criminals. As my late grandmother-in-law Nen used to say in her Caribbean accent: “I don’t want nothing to do with someone who thief me.” In her parlance, “thief” was a verb that was synonymous with “steal from” as well as a noun. A thief thieves people. Nen also seemed to envision a special place in hell for people who thiefed people by pretense or fraud. Some of the worst people, she said often, are people who give a six for a nine.

In Norwalk, Connecticut Tonya McDowell has been indicted for first-degree larceny. She faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $15,000 fine. She is charged with stealing education: she allegedly enrolled her son in Norwalk schools from September 2010 to January 2011 when she did not live there. She is alleged to have used the address of her babysitter who did live in Norwalk. You can read about it here in the New York Times. Several people have expressed outrage that a parent seeking a better education for her child would be subjected to such charges. They argue that what should be under indictment is the system of school funding in much of the United States that relies upon local tax funding and thus makes schools in wealthy neighborhoods more likely to be excellent while leaving schools in poor areas deficient.

There are however, a large number of people who remain silent through all of this. They are the quite rational, well-meaning, sympathetic and even empathetic people who, though they might not have criminally charged Ms. McDowell if it appeared that she had enrolled her child in a school district where she did not live, certainly would have advocated the prompt removal of her child from the school. One of their arguments goes something like this: “I worked hard for years to be able to afford a house in this neighborhood. I work even harder to pay the taxes that support the schools in this neighborhood. Why should someone who hasn’t done those things get to take advantage of the school system here?” I get this argument; I really do. Good quality education can be expensive. Yes, we do in many cases pay taxes for certain other services that may be used by all comers whether or not they live in our neighborhood, such as roads, firefighters, and police. But these, we might assert, are in the realm of the really necessary from a health, safety and welfare standpoint. Moreover, these tend to be services that do not always rely entirely on local funding, or that are not frequently used by non-residents (and still, there are sometimes calls to limit use or to charge a fee for use of even these essential services).

There is also the argument made by those who would have supported the removal of Ms. McDowell’s child that school excellence is the result of more than just well-funded schools or excellent teachers. Excellent schools are often attended by large numbers of children who come from safe, warm, clean homes with plentiful, nourishing food, attentive if not loving well-educated parents and other relatives, books and music, private lessons that supplement schooling, opportunities for travel, and all sorts of enrichment. Even if we could insure that all children attend well-funded schools, we would likely have to do a great deal more to create optimal educational conditions for all children. I get this argument, too. Education is, after all, more than instruction. Education has to do with the formation of an individual in numerous ways, ranging from the intellectual all the way to the moral, social and cultural. In contrast, instruction is more precise, and has to do with specific methods used for the transmission of knowledge. Instruction is a part of education, but education is not necessarily instruction. Education begins at home and continues at home long after instruction at a school or anywhere else is over.

So what does this say about whether or not we should be lodging theft charges against a mother for seeking to educate her child in a place where she does not live in order to obtain what she believes (and what many objective measures show to be) a better school? Do the Ms. McDowell’s of the world thief those of us who reside in better neighborhoods when they enroll their children? Is their behavior even more reprehensible because they must by necessity give sixes for nines to school enrollment officials when making representations about where they live?

The answer lies in how one views public education. If we conceive of the provision of public education as a consumer good or service that is subject to being “stolen”, then it is right to charge Ms. McDowell as if she had stolen an item from a luxury store or failed to pay for a hotel stay after representing that she could in fact pay. Such a view is deeply problematic, however. Public education is not a good at all, and though it is a service, it is a really unique type of service. It is a cornerstone of civic engagement and of democracy itself. However, while many of us would agree that we owe a public education to all children in our society, far fewer would agree that we owe a quality public education to every child. That seems to be something reserved for those with the price of admission. This is at the heart of the matter. It could be that by not providing quality education to all children it is we who thief the Ms. McDowell’s of the world. Through some combination of sympathetic tut-tutting and sophistic language about the nature of school funding, we give sixes for nines to the least advantaged persons in our society.

(This post is based on a paper in progress titled Thief Us: The Use of Criminal Sanctions for Enrolling Non-Resident Children in Public School Districts)

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