Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Editorial | Give CDF, CHASE Fund to education

Published:Wednesday | August 30, 2017 | 12:00 AM

If you're the education and information minister, or a surrogate thereof, you probably earn the right to shift the goalpost, or, more correctly, the narrative, to suit the slithering twists of your argument to win a point. In that regard, we concede to Ruel Reid that the Government will, this fiscal year, as he reminded teachers last week, spend approximately J$37.7 billion on secondary education.

"That means we are spending J$176,994 per capita at the secondary level," Mr Reid said at the annual conference of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA). This suggests an enrolment of 213,000 students at government-supported secondary schools.

The education minister explained, and his spokesman in a letter to this newspaper confirmed, that the expenditure included "salaries, grants, TVET, ICT, science, infrastructure, furniture and nutrition". The mention of "grants" is to be noted.

Mr Reid's spokespersons take exception to this newspaper referring to a direct per-capita allocation to high schools of J$17,000, against the J$11,500 they got up to 2016. The argument is that this understates, and fails to place in its correct context, "the substantial increase in funding that the State now provides to the public education system".

They are right. But it doesn't change the fundamental issue.

The background to this issue is the ongoing debate over the funding of education in Jamaica; what, if any, contribution parents should make; and Mr Reid's recent characterisation of some school administrators as corrupt extortionists over the amounts they ask parents to pay, allegedly in contradiction to government policy.

The brunt of the dispute has been the inadequacy of the grants schools receive to run their operations, such as paying for utilities, purchasing stationery, maintaining the laboratories, and funding programmes not covered by the education ministry. A year ago, as the Government promoted its policy of 'free' education, the focus of Minister Reid and Prime Minister Andrew Holness hyped their plan to increase the per-capita grant by between 45 per cent and 65 per cent, to $17,000 and J$19,000 per student.

The policy went through several iterations. It settled on schools still being allowed to ask parents for money, once they didn't call the payments 'auxiliary fees'. Amounts agreed with the education ministry would be 'contributions', which were not mandatory, in that students could not be turned away if their parents could not afford to pay. Which resembles the old policy, except for the shifting tone on compliance.

 

Cannot afford to meet cost

 

That the Government substantially increased funding to education is great. But the State still cannot afford to meet the cost of a system worthy of a 21st-century economy, as data published by schools, including St Andrew High for Girls, confirm.

Outside of what is paid for directly by the Government and some reimbursable expenses, St Andrew estimates its budget, for the school year starting in a week's time, at J$104 million, or around $67,000 per student. It will receive about J$17,000 per student, or J$26.3 million from the Government. That's a budget gap of J$77.7 million, or J$50,000 per student.

The school could decide to deliver whatever quality of education the budget could pay for. However, by agreement with the ministry, it has asked parents for an official 'contribution' of J$29,000, plus a top-up of J$10,500. There will still be a gap to close.

Until the country can afford otherwise, it should be a clear obligation on parents who can afford it to pay school fees. Additionally, the Government can eke out some more money by transferring the J$1.3, billion Constituency Development Fund, used by members of parliment to spread patronage, to the education budget and reconfiguring the CHASE Fund, financed from taxes on lotteries, to give the largest share to education rather than sports.