Mandatory schools fees insult
I am drawn to a Gleaner article in which three noted educators from the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) and the Association of Principals and Vice Principals are supporting this Government's so-called mandatory auxiliary fees policy in opposition to the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) declared abolition of mandatory cost sharing.
I am concerned, however, that from the article there is no mention of these educators discussing with the Opposition their full policy position before making uninformed conclusions. I have not followed that mistake, but took the time to meet with the Opposition spokesperson on education and her team to clarify what their policy position is.
From these consultations, I have been advised that the Opposition is against barring students from access to schools or access to school services based on inability to pay. They are proposing that all high schools be given a minimum amount to cover tuition and operating expenses moving from the current $11,500 to $19,000 per year, and then to move with inflation thereafter.
Currently, most schools do NOT collect 100 per cent of auxiliary fees. The average among traditional high schools collect is 80 per cent. At non-traditional schools, it is below 50 per cent. The Opposition's policy is much better, since there would be a guaranteed inflow to ALL schools. In fact, I am asking the Opposition to consider asking schools to reduce their auxiliary fees by $7,500, consequent on government increased per-capita allocation of similar amount.
Not only that, Jamaica has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world but, indeed, the general purchasing power of Jamaican families has declined by more than 40 per cent over the last four years. It stands to reason that Jamaican families are less able now to afford mandatory school fees. The average household income in Jamaica today is about $600,000 per annum.
Let's look at how this income would be able to meet family expenses, including education of two high-school children.
As seen in the table, the average household in Jamaica really is unable to contribute meaningfully to school-operating expenses. The policy of mandatory fees is, therefore, mute. What we are targeting instead are only those parents who are able to pay. We certainly encourage those parents, the diaspora, corporate Jamaica, and those who benefited from free education of the 1970s and 1980s, to continue to support our schools.
Government, on the other hand, has an obligation to manage the economy to ensure there is priority expenditure on education, health and national security.
In fact, during this current IMF programme, we have not seen enough attempts by the Government to cut expenditure through rationalisation and other efficiency measures.
I am told by the Opposition that they intend to utilise the education tax (now at $20 billion) to ensure that the annual increase in collections are targeted to increasing the annual per capita allocation to high schools.
I challenge my colleagues that when all schools are required to request in excess of $30,000 per year in auxiliary fees, then we are in a crisis unless the economy is robust with higher per-capita income and much higher wage rates. Or are my colleagues and JTA now prepared to recommend that parents now apply to the SLB for high-school student loans?
Mandatory fees are in conflict with the JTA's philosophy on education and that of Education International (EI) of which we are members.
My colleagues should be lobbying the Government, IMF and stakeholders to provide the fiscal space to install solar panels in our schools to reduce energy and provide savings to reduce auxiliary fees. It is also unacceptable for the Government to only provide $50,000 per annum for maintenance. I can't imagine my colleagues supporting these backward mandatory fees policies that continue to burden the poor and unemployed in 2015.
Until then, I believe the Opposition's policy is much better suited to our realities at this time.
If we think education is expensive, let's try ignorance.
n Ruel Reid is principal of Jamaica College and a former adviser to the minister of education.