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

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

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

Officials call it the first known case of its type in Connecticut, although similar conflicts have played out elsewhere in the U.S. 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 like to explain to a 5-year-old kid, you know, ‘You got kicked out because we don’t have a steady address yet,”‘ said McDowell, an unemployed cook.

McDowell, who is black, has drawn the support of civil rights leaders and parents’ groups and is being represented by a lawyer provided by the Connecticut chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines if convicted of the felony larceny charge.

She said before Wednesday’s arraignment that her bewildered son, A.J., repeatedly asks why he was kicked out of his school. The boy was removed from Norwalk’s Brookside Elementary School in January and now lives with relatives in Bridgeport, where he attends kindergarten.

“He’s very curious in regards to it because he thinks I stole Brookside away from him, like I took it away from him,” said McDowell, who has a criminal record and faces pending drug charges in the same court handling the enrollment case.

Several parents picking up children at the school Wednesday afternoon expressed support for McDowell.

“If they were going to do it, they should have at least waited until the end of the school year if he was settled in and doing well here,” said Thomas Soltes, who was picking up his granddaughter. “It isn’t the child’s fault and he shouldn’t be penalized.”

Connecticut students can only attend public schools in the municipality where their parents or guardians reside, unless they go to a magnet school, charter schools or another district under a desegregation plan.

About 2,700 children in Connecticut public schools were listed last year as homeless, including many in temporary foster care or going through custody or residency transitions.

Many school districts have residency investigators on staff or on call, though state Department of Education officials say they have never heard of an arrest in such a case.

McDowell’s case is not the nation’s first. Last year, a single mother from Ohio was convicted of a felony for using her father’s address to enroll her children in a suburban district rather than the larger, underperforming Akron district.

Gwen Samuel, one of McDowell’s supporters and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she would do the same thing.

“I would use the janitor’s address to get my kid a good education; that’s not even negotiable,” said Samuel, of Meriden.