College admissions scandal highlights inequality of American education system

Clockwise from top left: Tanya McDowell, Kelley-Williams Bolar, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. (Photo: Getty Images)
Clockwise from top left: Tanya McDowell, Kelley-Williams Bolar, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. (Photo: Getty Images)

The recently revealed college admissions scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, has all the drama and intrigue of a Hollywood film: extreme wealth and privilege (alleged bribes of up to $6 million to get kids into elite schools), deception and, of course, celebrities and social influencers, notably actress Lori Loughlin, her fashion-giant husband Mossimo Giannulli, and actress Felicity Huffman.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling at a press conference in Boston Tuesday. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and I’ll add there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either.”

However, as the country fixates on the gross extortion by those who have the means to provide the best academic resources and advantages that money can buy, others are using the opportunity to try and shed some light on the realities of America’s unbalanced education system — specifically, the prosecution of struggling, working-class citizens fighting for equal opportunities for their children.

“Remember Tanya McDowell?” one Twitter user asked. “She was convicted of 1st-degree larceny for ‘stealing’ an education. But, #CollegeCheatingScandal.”

McDowell, of Connecticut, was arrested for illegally enrolling her 6-year-old son in the public school of a town in which she did not live and, in 2012, was sentenced to five years in prison.

Below, read more about McDowell and other past convictions that stand in stark contrast to Operation Varsity Blues.

Tanya McDowell

In 2011, McDowell was arrested for sending her 5-year-old son to a Norwalk, Conn. elementary school for a better education. McDowell was unemployed and homeless at the time, but slept primarily in Bridgeport-area shelters and in a van, and occasionally an apartment, reported NBC Connecticut. Then 33, McDowell used her son’s babysitter’s address to enroll him at the Norwalk school.

Authorities claimed that McDowell had stolen $15,000 — the cost of her son’s education — from the Norwalk School District, and charged her with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny. She was sentenced to 12 years total, with the additional time for two counts of the sale of narcotics.

“Who would have thought that wanting a good education for my son would put me in this predicament?” McDowell lamented to the Superior Court judge after receiving her sentence. “I have no regrets seeking a better education for him. I do regret my participation in this drug case.”

Kelley Williams-Bolar

Not all education is created equal. That’s why Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar says she falsified records, to allow her two daughters access to better schooling. It wound up getting her jailed for nine days and convicted of a felony in 2011. The charge also threatened Williams-Bolar’s ability to get her teaching license.

Using her father’s address, Williams-Bolar, who is black and lived in a housing project in Akron, Ohio, claimed residency status in a predominantly white suburb that had higher performing schools. Her children attended the Copley Township school, until the district filed criminal charges against Williams-Bolar and, later, her father. The district alleged that Williams-Bolar owed $30,500 in tuition.

The criminal charges leveled against her sparked national outrage, and highlighted the issues of equal access to education, particularly based on race.

There weren’t that many minorities out there,” Williams-Bolar told Ebony. “This was their way to narrow down our enrollment. I didn’t hear them say that, but at the same time there were only a sprinkle [of non-White students].

Ohio Governor John Kasich succumbed to national pressure and reduced her felony charges and the sentence. She was put on probation for three years and required to complete 80 hours of community service. However, in a book she later wrote about her experience, the mom of two discusses how the case affected her mental health and wellbeing, and how she still struggles to get her daughters and others the educations they deserve.

“Time heals,” she told Ebony, “but I will never be the person I was prior to everything that happened.”

On Friday, she told the Today show about those who participated in the elite scandal, “They already had so much and just wanted more.” But she was also empathetic. “The socioeconomic backdrop is completely different. It’s two different cases — absolutely. And they definitely were all about the status. But we’re all moms,” she said. “Mothers want good education for their kids. That’s what we have in common. When I watched the video of them with their daughters, I could see the passion in their eyes for their kids. I could see the love there. They want what’s best for their kids.”

Shani Robinson and other Atlanta educators

In 2015, nine Atlanta educators were handed harsh sentences for refusing to plead guilty for conspiracy of boosting students’ standardized test scores and hiding the poor performance of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) while two others plead guilty. According to reports from the Los Angeles Times, high-ranking administrators were sentenced to seven years in prison, while lower-ranking educators received one- to two-year prison terms. Of the 11 educators that were charged, all were people of color.

Known as the largest cheating scandal ever prosecuted at the time, the case sparked an intense national debate about race and test-based accountability in public schools. Supporters of the indicted educators cited the fixed standardized scores as a “natural response” when faced with penalties for not delivering high-stakes scores in Atlanta’s underserved and underfunded urban public school system.

“The biggest truth without knowing all the facts in [Operation Varsity Blue] is that the system is rigged in favor of the elite,” tweeted Shani Robinson, one of the former Atlanta educators convicted in 2015. Robinson shares her account of the cheating scandal in a book titled “None of the Aboveand examines the context of the city’s “widening racial and economic disparities” with journalist Anna Simonton on students’ educations at Atlanta Public Schools.

Other supporters at the time were outraged that the former educators had been put behind bars for violating a Georgia racketeering statue originally intended for gangsters. The nine who remained steadfast and served prison time insisted on their innocence and their right to appeal. In 2018, two of the Atlanta Public School employees convicted exhausted their appeals and were sent to prison in October. The remaining seven are seeking a new trial and have remained free on bond, the Atlantic Journal-Constitution reports.

“None of these teachers have ever been charged with anything in their life. And this is what their life comes to? Jail! In this country?” Barbara Holly-Lutalo, a friend of former Principal Dana Evans, told the Los Angeles Times after the sentencing of the Atlanta educators. Evans was sentenced to a year in prison and 1,000 hours of community service.

“This isn’t justice,” Holly-Lutalo added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Atlanta educators that had been convicted in 2015. It has been corrected.

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