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Five Years Jail Term for Seeking a Better Education for Your Child?

By Yvette Vignando - 1st March 2012

I thought I’d misunderstood the headline: Homeless Mom Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison for “Stealing” Son’s Education. How do you steal someone’s education? Did this mother forge her name on to her son’s graduation certificate, or masquerade as him during his University biology class? No – U.S. mother, Tanya McDowell, simply placed her five year old son in a school district in the United States in which she did not have permanent residence. When I investigated further, I found that the headline was not entirely accurate: McDowell was actually issued with a twelve year sentence, suspended after she serves the first five years.*

Apparently this is not the first time in the United States that a parent has been imprisoned for seeking better education for their child: for example, last year an Ohio woman was sentenced to ten days in jail and three years of probation and community service for a similar offence.

The children of the Tanya McDowells of the United States don’t stand much of a chance. It seems that if you are homeless, or living in a van like McDowell, but still harbouring a dream that your child might get a decent education, you follow that dream at the risk of a lengthy jail term.  Excuse the clichéd term here, but I am simply gobsmacked by the outcome in this case. This quote from a pbs.org article neatly expresses the situation:
“The disparate funding for public schools and between states and within metropolitan areas has turned some public schools into meccas for affluent students and others into decaying infrastructures with overcrowded classrooms and soaring drop-out rates.”

Funding of American schools is complicated and difficult to understand. School districts are partly and significantly funded by taxes paid by the people who live within those districts. And the wealth of the local population plays a large part in the resourcing of those schools – this is a result of private donations and property taxes that are funnelled into the local public school system. For example, in the Palo Alto area on the west coast of the United States, between 60% and 70% of the funding for public schools comes from private donations. It was reported that parents raised over $3.4 million for schools in that area in the most recent financial year, in addition to another $3 million raised via a locally imposed and voter-supported bond measure. Motivated and wealthy American parents understandably feel compelled to pore over tables of information to find the best school district for their housing buck”. 

With the recent release of the Australian Review of Funding for Schooling report by David Gonski, Australian parents are becoming increasingly aware of inequities in our own school funding system. Access to the My School website has also made parents more familiar with the complex formulas used to determine the ratio of private and public school funding by Australian State and Federal governments.

So, as a parent of three school-aged children, and a passionate supporter of public education, I welcome the School Funding Review by David Gonski. And although I’m confident that Australian parents do not risk imprisonment for falsely enrolling their child in an out-of-area public school, I suspect that there are significant funding inequities here in Australia among public and private schools, and among richer and poorer population areas. Evidence of the fine line we are perhaps already treading, are the instances in Sydney of parents faking their home addresses or using relatives’ addresses to get their child into a desirable public school outside their family’s area of residence.

Living in a middle class area, our New South Wales family has access to decent public schools for our children. But I am concerned about the direction we are heading in for funding of public schools here in Australia. I see many of our middle class friends making significant and burdensome financial sacrifices to send their children to private schools in the fervent hope that this will give them a superior education. I support their right to this choice, and I understand that this takes some of the economic burden off the taxation system.

But Tanya McDowell’s counterparts in Australia don’t have the choice of sending their children to a private school and are more likely to be sending their children to public schools with larger numbers of disadvantaged students. These ‘disadvantaged’ schools don’t perform as well on educational measures. And in a 2011 report on Equity and Quality in Education by the OECD, it was pointed out that the existence of selective schools in Australia also means that they are able to ‘cream skim’ students who are easier to teach and more able to learn” and that wealthier parents  also “make more effective use of school choice, and tend to avoid schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students” .

The five year jail term for a homeless mother who sought to make a “more effective” choice for her five year old son is an extreme case, and of course is an incident in another country. But with an Australian Federal government that tends to look to the United States for educational policy guidance, this story highlights how important the Gonski Review may prove to be.  I optimistically hope that the Gonski Review leads to the reorganisation of school funding needed in Australia to ensure that all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, have access to the very highest quality public education that our taxation system can afford.

*The same woman was also charged and pleaded guilty in a plea bargain arrangement to selling drugs to undercover police officers – however, she will not be sentenced on these charges until later this month.

Other sources

Original headline source
Ohio Mother jailing
PBS article
Palo Alto school funding
image freedigitalphotos.net

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