NORWALK, Conn. -- A homeless single mother who lives in her van pleaded not guilty yesterday to stealing nearly $16,000 worth of education for her son by enrolling the kindergartner in her baby-sitter's school district.

Tanya McDowell, 33, was arrested April 14 on felony charges of committing and attempting to commit first-degree larceny.

Prosecutors say she used her baby-sitter's address to enroll her son in Norwalk schools but should have registered the boy in Bridgeport, a significantly poorer urban district and the location of her last permanent address.

It was the first known case of its type in Connecticut. Similar conflicts have played out elsewhere as districts try to ensure their scarce local tax dollars are used for local students.

"He's only 5 years old and it's hard . . . to explain to a 5-year-old kid, you know, 'You got kicked out because we don't have a steady address yet,' " said the unemployed cook.

McDowell has drawn the support of parents' groups and is represented by a lawyer provided by the Connecticut NAACP chapter. -- AP

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