Editorial: Think carefully on auxiliary fees
Operating a high-speed train on a narrow-gauge line designed for a 19th-century steam locomotive, or vice versa, won't work. The most likely outcome is a train wreck. Which is what many Jamaicans are worried that could be in store for the island's secondary education system.
That is why this newspaper urges the education minister, Ruel Reid, and Prime Minister Andrew Holness to listen to people like Keven Jones and Patricia Bailey, the principals, respectively, of the Mona and Yallahs high schools in St Andrew and St Thomas. They are among a growing number of head teachers and independent analysts who are concerned about the administration's imminent implementation of its policy to remove auxiliary fees from secondary schools.
First, we understand education to be the great social leveller and most long-term determinant of an individual's life prospects. That is why we believe that every Jamaican child, regardless of class or creed, should have access to quality education at the primary and secondary levels and should not be deprived of it because of an inability to pay for it.
It is against that backdrop, too, that we appreciate the egalitarian principle inherent in Mr Holness' Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) election promise to remove these fees from Jamaican schools.
But in Jamaica's economic circumstances, Mr Holness and his Government should be wary of rigidities and absolutes. Jamaica was, for a long time, among the world's most chronically indebted nations, with Greek-style debt-to-GDP ratios, reaching close to 150 per cent.
Servicing that debt gobbled up a huge chunk of the country's taxes, leaving little to spend on public services, social and economic infrastructure, crowded the private sector from borrowing and inspired anaemic growth. Over the past four years, the country has undergone tough austerity and made substantial progress in bringing the debt under control. But there is still more work to be done.
It is in this context that the Government annually spends more than J$80 billion, or around a quarter of its non-debt-servicing budget, in education. Between 35 and 37 per cent of that goes to secondary education, which is not enough to meet that sub-sector's requirements. On average, the Government pays J$11,500 per secondary student to cover tuition, which is "free" to parents.
Until now, however, principals have tacked on various auxiliary fees, which, supposedly, are not obligatory, but which they pressure parents to pay. Around half do. Others, the poorer ones, baulk at the idea. The official policy, however, is that no child should be denied his/her place in school because the fees are not paid.
Mr Holness' administration, however, says that these fees should be removed altogether. The Government plans to increase by J$10,000 the per-capita subvention to high schools. But Mr Jones complains that this will leave his school around $2,500, or nearly 12 per cent, below what it used to collect in subventions and fees, which was already inadequate.
His school, Mr Jones says, will be worse off, forcing him to go cap in hand begging parents. Ms Bailey is similarly concerned. So is this newspaper.
It can't be beyond the capacity of the Jamaican authorities to design a rational system of means testing to determine those who genuinely can't afford to pay and for those who can to do so.