Thu | Aug 24, 2017

Editorial | Save Ruel Reid from himself

Published:Sunday | August 6, 2017 | 8:00 AM

A wit might be inclined to claim that Ruel Reid entertains strange culinary tastes, given his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth. We are more likely to believe that the education minister is in need of being saved from himself.

So, on Thursday, the gaffe-prone Mr Reid apologised for his most recent faux pas of referring to several of Jamaica's high-school administrations - which really means their principals and governors, who set policy - as corrupt extortionists who blackmail parents into paying fees contrary to government policy. What, however, he failed to appreciate is that rather than experiencing an anarchic revolt by school principals and their boards, he is, in fact, witnessing a collision of politics and economics.

We, and others, warned Mr Reid, and by extension, the Holness administration of its inevitability.

The matter at hand is the Government's political decision last year to end cost-sharing in secondary education, over which Minister Reid was forced into myriad policy contortions. Finally, he fudged the issue.

Officially, secondary education was free in Jamaica. But the average of J$11,500 per student that the Government, up to last year, gave to schools to run their plants was insufficient to do the job. Principals, therefore, tacked on sums to cover a range of activities, and called them auxiliary fees. By these means the schools collected an additional J$2 billion a year, or as Mr Reid characterised in a 2016 screed, "a measly 49 per cent" of what they requested from parents.

It was always official policy that students who couldn't pay ought not to be turned away from school, which, we suspect, wasn't always adhered to. It was an election campaign promise of Mr Reid's party to remove the policy altogether, which, unsurprisingly, wasn't universally popular with principals, even if it might have been with parents.

 

AUXILIARY FEE COMPENSATION

 

The Government, however, compensated for what would be lost from the elimination of auxiliary fees by increasing the subventions to schools to between J$17,000 and J$19,000, or a hike, at the top end, of 65 per cent. At the same time, schools could ask parents for money to cover some costs, but they couldn't call it auxiliary fees. The new nomenclature: contributions.

Some schools have been asking parents for what, in the new dispensation, should be 'contributions'. But Mr Reid is peeved at what he claims to be the "creative means" they employ to make payment an obligation. He also complained that some schools breached the Government's benchmark. The minister also hinted at callous financial management by some schools, if not worse.

That Mr Reid has apologised for his intemperate remarks is one thing. His absence of cogent analysis and logic is quite another.

Despite his background as a high-school head teacher, Mr Reid never understood, it seems, that even a subvention of J$19,000 (US$147) to schools - other government payments notwithstanding - is insufficient to maintain their plants and deliver quality education.

We offer the following not to create a benchmark, but to provide Mr Reid with context. In the United States, the average spend per student in elementary and public schools in 2013 was US$11,800; in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, the average is US$9,200, ranging from a low of $2,900 to US$16,000.

Jamaica's schools have long depended on the goodwill of parents and the charity of others to augment their capacity to deliver decent education. Further, 12-month inflation to June was 4.4 per cent, which saw consumer prices for the first half of 2016 increase by 2.1 per cent. Schools are not ring-fenced from such hikes. When principals baulked at the fee-less policy, there was logic to their behaviour.