Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9 FM. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
That’s how I would describe the poor-performing, prison-like public school my son would have had to attend if I hadn’t made it my life’s mission to find better options.
Despite living in an exclusive Brooklyn brownstone community, we confronted the reality that the determining factor for the quality of education at a neighborhood public school, back in the early 2000s and even now, was usually race rather than income.
The whiter your neighborhood in New York, the better shot you had of having good local school options. Still, I insisted on raising my family in a neighborhood enriched by the beautiful shades of brown reflected in the black American and Caribbean communities. Finding a good school was a challenge.
My search for quality education took me on a nearly 20-year journey, one that included a pricey, private co-operative day care program, with a two-year waiting list and a ridiculous interview process – for toddlers. Then it was two years at an invitation-only magnet school, where the principal pumped parents to find out what type of “in-kind gifts” they could donate to the school. And finally, frustrated by the public school politics, 10 years at an elite private school and acceptance to top colleges. It was an exhausting journey.
At every turn, there were parents just like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and the dozens of other parents charged in the recent college cheating scandal. Privileged parents who wielded their money, power and professional influence to curry favor, cheat the school system, manipulate the admissions policies, and often broke laws to gain unfair advantage for their children. These parents, often bearing gifts, were embraced and usually celebrated for the crafty ways they found to give their children an edge, even when it meant stealing opportunities from more deserving students. Some even bragged about leasing secondary, empty apartments in upscale neighborhoods in order to enroll their children in better schools – never intending to live at these addresses for one day.
They were never held accountable, never prosecuted. And for me, the college cheating scandal brings home the stark inequity between privileged parents who bend or break the rules for their kids and those with less power who often face harsher judgment for trying to reach for a better outcome for their children. The truth here is that, if convicted, parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman deserve to face real jail time if there is to be any justice.
Loughlin, along with her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded not guilty on Monday to two conspiracy charges in the scandal, according to court filings. They also waived their right to appear in court for an arraignment on a money laundering charge. Prosecutors say they paid $500,000 to William “Rick” Singer to get their daughters into the University of Southern California by falsely designating them as athletic recruits. Huffman has pleaded guilty to paying Singer, the architect of the college cheating ring, $15,000 in bribe money to arrange for someone to secretly correct the answers on her daughter’s SAT exam, upping her test score by 400 points, according to court documents.
Huffman also found a mental health professional to diagnose a fake learning disability for her daughter, which would allow her to have extra time for the college entrance exams. Huffman now regrets her actions: “I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done,” Huffman wrote in a statement, apologizing to all the students who work hard to get into college and their parents who “make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.” CNN reported Tuesday that prosecutors plan to seek four to 10 months of jail time for Huffman.
The cheating parents I encountered for all those years while raising my son considered themselves above the law – until now. I hope those days are gone.
Though the criminal cases of Huffman and Loughlin are vastly different, both exemplify the ugliest type of helicopter parenting (or worse), when privilege and power outweigh character and integrity. When parents teach kids “It’s who you know, not how hard you try, that matters most in life.” When they teach children that money and prestige are the only way to measure their self-worth. Unlike Huffman, neither Loughlin nor her husband have admitted any guilt or shame.
The extra-time-on-tests scam is particularly well-known in elite middle and high school programs across the country.
I first learned about it from other New York parents who used the practice, fully aware that their children had no such disability or need for additional time. But they knew the extra test time allowance would apply to their children’s entire educational career, including the college entrance exams. Parents shared information on which doctors were best to go to for testing and a guaranteed diagnosis. The practice was so common that I never heard anyone question the obvious ethics of faking a disability.
I passed on this shortcut. Having worked so hard to give my son the opportunities afforded by a good education, I had confidence in his abilities to succeed without cheating. He did.
For me, it wasn’t only an ethical question (though of course, the moral wrong of exploiting disability for an edge should be a given). If my son had needed accommodation, I would have done whatever it took to make sure he got it. But I also refused to put a fake label on my son that would follow him throughout his school years. Black students are burdened with enough stereotypes and labels. And no matter how much power or privilege many black parents acquire, we understand justice treats us differently.
Take the cases of Tanya McDowell in Connecticut and Kelly Williams-Bolar in Ohio, two black moms who served jail time for enrolling their kids in better schools outside their assigned school districts.
In 2011, Williams-Bolar, a single mother living in subsidized housing in Akron, served 9 days in jail after using her father’s address to register her two daughters in a high-performing suburban school district. She was ordered to pay the district back $30,000 in lost tuition and $6,000 in investigative costs. Her father was also charged, lost his home and was sent to jail. He died while serving his time, according to ebony.com.
In 2012, McDowell, a homeless mother, was sentenced to significant jail time for sending her 6-year-old son to a school in a better district (as well as on unrelated drug charges).
Though from different worlds, Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, Tanya McDowell and Kelly Williams-Bolar all had the same dream: a better future for their children.
It’s the dream of every parent, regardless of their race or economic status.
And no matter how many times we see justice seemingly tip in favor of the rich, or famous, Americans still want to believe we all have an equal shot. That money and privilege don’t always win. That hard work and integrity still matter.
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The college cheating scandal puts those notions to the test. And there’s no telling if integrity will win.