Wed | Nov 22, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | Outsourcing Gov’t’s dirty work

Published:Sunday | August 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Sadly, we are not unfamiliar with instances where politicians go after citizens. It is usually an unequal battle, because the ordinary citizen doesn't have the bully pulpit, the same access to media, or diehard supporters. So it's not a pleasant thing to contemplate, far less witness. Plus, people know that there are unpleasant political elements out there, and that there are fanatical fires that can be kindled without too much stoking.

Generally, though, you will hear the "go after" threats levelled at media, and that isn't as bad, because the media are accustomed to politicians, custodians of great power and influence, and so better able to mount defences. However, when "go after" threats are introduced against the likes of volunteer school boards composed of people mostly anxious to avoid meaningless political brawls, as was done recently by 'Cruel Reid', it's time to draw brakes.

I arrived at that reflection because, in the wake of Reid's expressions that there are school administrations needing to be disciplined, I received communication from an implacably irate member of one mentioned board. The email contained a list of all the board members of the various schools named and shamed by Cruel with a simple question: "Are these corrupt extortionists?"

I want to pause on this thought for a while, just to acknowledge that Cruel knows how to deliver an insult. But mostly, I want to back away from the specifics of this clash and look at why the minister's mad rampage strikes me as so disingenuous.

Regarding funding education, the whole idea of 'voluntary contributions', named as 'building funds' and 'development fees', is a hot, steaming pile of bulls***. It represents the failure of our economics and politics to address a pretty basic social function: education fi de pickney dem.

The reality is that we all say we want to educate the nation's children, but what we really mean is that we want to get by by giving them the minimum necessary and, preferably, at no cost to ourselves. Needless to say, given that our politics usually panders to the lowest common denominator, the politician who asks for very little from the parents while pretending to be giving a lot to the kids will generally have a bright future.

This is where the broken political system comes into its own, with very few politicians truthful enough to admit what's going on, and hence, the near impossibility of an enlightened conversation about education funding.

 

Ample opportunity

 

Also, because the Government pays for various things at the schools, there's ample opportunity to fudge numbers, lie with percentages, and give the impression that the schools are swimming in loot, when, in fact, they are not.

The simple fact is that the schools NEED the payments from (at least) some of the parents for regular, routine, basic upkeep. To be abundantly clear, the Government does not give the schools enough to operate, and everyone acknowledges this.

So let's talk about taxation, the real dirty work of Government. The Government could simply tax us more to provide for the schools through the Consolidated Fund. It chooses not to do that, but instead, to levy 'contributions' on the parents of students. This is, in reality, just another tax being applied directly to the end user of the system.

The peculiarity of this tax is that compliance is now voluntary. Sure, the notion of a voluntary tax teeters on the brink of absurdity, but this is Jamaica, and absurdity and paradox are woven deep into our systems.

I think all fair-minded observers will agree that our leadership has completely screwed this all up with a pretty toxic soup of cowardice, deceitfulness and unearned self-regard.

How do schools survive in this mess? Well, navigating through all the contradictory epistles and messages while trying to keep the institutions running are a cadre of dedicated Jamaicans who give of their time and resources to see to it that the schools collect what they need to survive, raise from alumni and benefactors what they can't collect from parents, and beg Government to pay its bills. This is the backbone and institutional strength of the education system.

What I hope you are seeing is that the Jamaican State is failing gloriously because its political class can muster neither the willpower nor the consensus to set up proper arrangements to pay for the schools. So it has outsourced its responsibilities to the school administrations.

Without the capacity to means-test parents, but in need of the funds, what choice does a school administration have but to send out imploring letters to raise the dollars it needs, when the Government has chucked that nasty portion of its work over to them?

So now, with all that in mind, look again at what Cruel is up to. He is campaigning against, not helping, the administrators who have been forced to do Government's dirty work. I mean, under the circumstances, if he can't help, the very least he should do is be quiet.

Instead, bright and early September morning, when every principal is forced to remind the gathered parents that the school needs money, they will be talking with a sign over their head, saying "corrupt extortionist". And instead of cooperating in the voluntary contribution fiasco, more parents will choose to defect from handing over money to corrupt extortionists. Can you blame them?

Good job, Cruel. Good job!

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.