Editorial | Change narrative on school fees
Ruel Reid's public apology last week to school administrators for classing them as corrupt extortionists over how they execute his purported 'no-auxiliary-fee' policy in high schools is welcome and useful.
Yet, while the education minister's attempt to reset his relationship with a critical constituency might have had the immediately intended effect, it is likely to have resolved the underlying problem. For principals will have emerged from the annual conference of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) - where Mr Reid atoned - heading into a new academic year, with their schools still short of money, and the best efforts of the administration notwithstanding.
Moreover, in the continued effort to sustain the gratification politics over the pragmatism of economics, Mr Reid, at best, offered a less-than-specific explanation of what is the obligation, if any, of parents in financing their children's education. The likely result, we fear, is the self-fulfilling decline in parents' contributions to schools.
Up to the start of the last school year, when the administration of which Mr Reid is a member increased the per-capita subvention to high schools by as much as 65 per cent, to between J$17,000 and J$19,000, they received J$11,500, which was insufficient to run the schools. The schools, therefore, supplemented the grants with a host of 'auxiliary fees', but with the education ministry's caveat that children whose parents couldn't afford to pay shouldn't be turned away.
Obviously, the increase in subvention instituted by the current administration is better for schools, but what the Government now gives still can't cover the cost of running a high school, as numbers released by St Andrew High School for Girls demonstrated. They calculate that it costs around J$67,000 per student to operate the school, before removing some recoverable costs, after which it falls to J$50,000. So the school will, in the new academic year, ask parents to pay $39,500, of which J$29,000, or 73 per cent, has something of an imprimatur from the education ministry.
Except that parents, whatever their economic status, are under no obligation to pay. Or, as Mr Reid explained it last week at the teachers' union conference, the old auxiliary fees have been replaced with a "non-mandatory parents' contributions policy".
"In this, we differentiated what is charged to parents from what parents are expected to contribute, as agreed on by the school board, PTA and the ministry," he said, which we interpret to mean the difference between what the ministry agrees that schools may ask parents to contribute - which they are not obligated to do - and any other amounts the schools themselves may beseech of them - such as the additional J$10,500 St Andrew will seek from parents.
Mr Reid, of course, knows that in Jamaica's economic circumstance, the Government cannot fund schools to the levels required of 21st-century institutions and, therefore, needs support, thus his declaration that "we still believe that parents' contribution is still necessary to build effective schools".
The danger here is of the minister's plea being drowned out by the appeal of - and from the Government's point of view, electorally more rewarding - no obligation to pay. Insisting that those who can pay should doesn't equate to turning away those who can't. That is why we believe the Government, in general, and Mr Reid, particularly, should recraft their narrative on this issue until, if that is the policy, the country is in a position to provide free education of the highest quality.
In the meantime, the Government should pump as much money as it can into the system. School administrators would concomitantly be reducing the size of auxiliary fees.