Ronnie Thwaites: Rethink school freeness mentality
In a perfect world where state resources were plentiful and reliable, of course it would be a good thing to offer all-important social services free of cost - and what more important ones than health and education. Ideally, the same people receiving the benefits would be the same people paying for them by way of taxes.
And certainly, it sounds very popular to relieve hard-pressed parents from having to contribute to their children's schooling - at every level. Also, it is surely a profound social good to remove every obstacle of affordability from that most critical tool of development: the attainment of high levels of education and training.
So what could possibly be amiss with the Government's plan to abolish required parental contribution to the establishment costs of our high schools?
First of all, it is expending large sums of money and diminishing school autonomy to solve a problem that does not exist. There is no evidence that any child in Jamaica is denied access to school for want of paying auxiliary fees. It is true that some schools have been heavy-handed in pressing parents for collection, but it is contempt of our principals to imply that they kick kids out of school who can't or don't pay.
What is true is that nearly half of the high school cohort is on PATH and, by definition, such students, being unable to contribute to fees, the previous administration added a contribution of $2,000 to the $11,500 tuition allotment for the last two years. It was proposed to increase this to $3,000 in this financial year. Not enough, by any stretch, but a good start towards assisting each according to his or her need.
And it was my constant refrain when I was minister to encourage PATH parents to supplement that contribution to their child's school, as a priority expenditure, whenever they could.
Why? Because education is a supreme good and will always require a financial partnership between home and school. Even the widow contributing the proverbial mite to her child's school fees is hugely significant. It is an affirmation of dignity, a recognition of value, a powerful statement of personal and familial responsibility.
I fear that what this extinguishing of required auxiliary fees will do is to embed in our society the kind of populist (quite different from 'socialist') freeness mentality that the late Hugh Lawson Shearer, no less, warned of many years ago.
In financing education, as in every other sphere of Jamaican life where the pseudo-ethic of entitlement runs rife, the first principle should be 'from each, according to her ability: to each, according to his need'.
This approach is an important part of the renewed values and attitudes we yearn for. Contribution and effort afford entitlement - not charity or government largesse.
Beyond the principle, the Government's announcement is clumsy. The average auxiliary fee is about $14,000, as I remember. Add that to the existing tuition grant for every high-school student of $11,500, and you are significantly ahead of the $19,000, which the State promises for each student as of this September in place of auxiliary fees. How will the difference be made up?
PUT ADDITIONAL MONEY TO USE
If there is an extra $3 billion to spare, although it does not appear in the Estimates of Expenditure, it would be much better that all who can be required to continue to pay, in whole or at least in part, and the additional money allocated to those high schools with most PATH students and those whose weak GSAT entry standards require additional expense to foster better outcomes.
That way, those schools that collect limited fees will be assisted, while those with better receipts will be protected.
And then again, if secondary schooling is to be free, what about primary education? Every primary school I know of requests a contribution from parents and depends on it even though it is not mandatory. Is there a sensible basis for giving parents of high-school students a free ride and not doing the same for the more than 600 primary schools who are struggling mightily?
Given the promises, it is good to know that the Ministry of Finance will provide the tranches of the $19,000, which will be paid before the new money is voted. I wish them well. I learned not to forgo revenue or promised payment until the cash was in the Ministry of Education's account.
Noting the reality of state finances and the experience that freeness does not enure to higher quality, should we consult widely and think this plan out some more?
- Ronald Thwaites is MP for Central Kingston and opposition spokesman on education. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.