Editorial: Help pay for school meals with school fees
It is not our sense that a critical initiative being pursued by the education ministry this school year is getting the attention and, therefore, the analysis it deserves. We refer to the expansion of the Government's School Feeding Programme. It seems to us that there are questions to be asked, and answered, about if, and how, it can be sustained, and the mechanism being put in place to measure its success.
A useful starting point for any discussion of this project is the fact that, as was recently revealed by the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, up to 30 per cent of children in the early childhood system go to school hungry. So, too, do a good proportion of those in other segments of the education sector, contributing, the anecdotal evidence suggests, to the nearly one-fifth regular absenteeism in Jamaican high schools.
So, with the school year just started, the Government will provide breakfast and lunch for all 125,000 students in the registered early childhood institutions. In other schools, where lunches were served between two and three days, it will now be extended to the entire school week. Overall, nearly 320,000 children will receive meals at schools.
There is no single reason for this state of affairs, but rather the outcome of a complex matrix of socio-economic circumstances. But whatever the cause, this part of the fix being pursued by Mr Thwaites is not cheap. For this fiscal year, the Government proposes to spend around J$4.4 billion on its School Feeding Programme, which, while only marginally higher than the previous year, represents five and a half per cent of total education expenditure.
Notably, approximately J$3 billion, or 68 per cent of the school feeding expenditure, is directed to children registered under PATH (Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education), a largely cash-transfer social safety net for the poor, one of whose criteria is that their children stay in school.
Additionally, the education ministry will contribute J$921 million to the Government's meal-production company, Nutrition Products Ltd, plus make cash grants totalling J$100 million directly to schools for their in-house feeding programmes, which are geared to nutrition-deficit children who may not be on the PATH.
The latter allocation is a point in issue. Many schools say even with the PATH funding, it is insufficient to meet the demands. The problem is worse in the many schools with poor, and often PATH-dependent, students whose parents can't afford, or decline to pay, auxiliary fees and lack the strong past-student groups and/or parent-teacher associations that help to finance many education institutions.
And given Jamaica's difficult fiscal circumstances, the Government will be hard-pressed to increase its J$80-billion education budget, and, therefore, its allocation under PATH and subventions to schools.
Against that backdrop, it is urgent that the Government reverse the policy of 'free' secondary education, requiring those who can afford it to pay. Appropriate means tests can determine this. The inflows can go towards the school feeding and other programme.
In the meantime, though, taxpayers have to be informed of the returns of paying for school meals and the measures to be used to determine this.