Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Don't throw more money at education

Published:Sunday | September 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I must question the wisdom of the editorial of Monday, August 28, 2017, in which The Gleaner advocated for increased funding for education because portfolio minister Ruel Reid told teachers that the Government has assumed responsibility for educating, for free, children between ages three to 18 "and is serious about the implementation of that policy".

If that prescription were heeded, it would be yet another one of the countless mistakes our country keeps making.

While The Gleaner admitted that quality education is not cheap, and that Jamaica is not in great fiscal shape, it asserts, "It's an objective to which this newspaper is not opposed." To help the Government achieve its goal of free quality education, The Gleaner proposed tapping funds from the Constituency Development Fund, more funds from CHASE (Culture, Health, Art, Sports, Education) Fund and sourcing at least 60 per cent of taxes when, and if, casino gambling comes on stream.

When Reid says his government is committed to implementing quality education for free, either he has not done his homework by costing his proposal or he is just playing to the gallery as a vote-catching exercise.

But there is something else more dire. When something of value is being paraded as free in a highly indebted country that can't satisfy many of its basic needs, students securing this benefit are often not even aware or appreciative of the sacrifice involved on the part of the nation, so many of them squander their opportunities.

Education is not free. And quality education is not cheap. Go to any high school, even the ones catering to mostly poor neighbourhoods, and look at the creative ways principals, desperate to cover costs, try to extract additional money from parents by charging fees for registration, PTA membership, and for boys' and girls' day.

As for providing quality education, that is very expensive as St Andrew, Campion, and Immaculate high schools can attest by virtue of what they charge in auxiliary fees (St Andrew alone has to find $67,000 per child). And as the Ministry of Education knows, it spends nearly $38 billion on secondary education, including salaries, grants, nutrition, and furniture.

Whenever governments make outrageous and fanciful proposals, whether in education, the criminal justice system, or health care, they do not seriously factor social overhead capital (buildings, equipment) and human resource needs, so our teachers, nurses, policemen, and other public-sector workers are always asked to tighten their belts.

There has been much fanfare about new policy initiatives in education recently, and the budget has increased 18 per cent over the last three years to $98.75 billion, yet teachers, who are the real drivers for success in the classroom, have to be wrestling to secure salary increases year after year.

Education has a magnetic pull for many in the middle class as it facilitated their rise from the underbelly of society, or from the lower middle class, and it has maintained their sense of entitlement and privilege. It also provides an enduring hope for the majority. As such, there is always the temptation to ask more for education, to allocate more, and to spend more, even when there are other pressing needs in other areas; even when the country cannot afford it; and even when we are not executing a strategic vision to make us a world-class education hub.

 

MICHAEL MANLEY GOV'T

 

It was not surprising, therefore, that former Prime Minister Michael Manley, in the emotion of the moment and to the roar of the crowd, declared education free from primary school to university. Yes, Manley was concerned about the alienated youth, the degree of inequality in the society, tribalism, and the hierarchal nature of education, and was convinced that free education would be the solution. But Jamaica, like other oil-consuming countries at the time, didn't have the resources to support free education.

Without money, a coherent strategy, and appropriate policy analysis and costing, the free education gambit contributed to fiscal instability, but, more important, it distracted the Government from pursuing more meaningful, relevant, better-researched, and cost-effective solutions for education.

Fast-forward 43 years from Manley, the conceptualiser, to Reid, the idealist.

Prior to the new government assuming office early last year, the previous administration provided $11,500 per capita operational support for schools. Auxiliary fees covered the shortfall.

The auxiliary fees were institutionalised by the schools because of need, but if parents couldn't pay, which was privately determined, sometimes after a little more than mild inquisition, the child would be allowed to attend school. The system worked, as far as I can glean, and no child was sent home for non-payment.

Reid, after taking office and making a number of missteps about auxiliary fees, indicated that the Government would be increasing its per capita subvention by 47 per cent to between $17,000 and $19,000, and this should be sufficient to cover auxiliary fees, resulting in their abolition. But subvention was, and still is, inadequate, in spite of Reid aggressively advertising, "If parents can't pay, they don't have to." Many parents have availed themselves of the minister's gratuitous option, resulting in a slightly less than 50 per cent compliance rate.

In April's Budget, education got an 11 per cent increase and the national security sector, including the Jamaica Defence Force, the police, the prisons, the criminal justice system, was left in the cold. While some of us made a big to-do about this incongruity, the Budget was approved. Is it any wonder murders, which have now passed the 1,000 mark, are up 25 per cent this year.

Will we repeat last year's error and bias our limited Budget resources to the Ministry of Education so that the minister can expand exponentially the School Feeding Programme and significantly increase contributions and the number of PATH recipients?

To make sure the minister can cover the full cost of this very expensive initiative and not have to curse out as corrupt extortionists the school administrators who have to pitch in to cover budgetary gaps, all we have to do is find new sources of funds, whether from CHASE or the CDF, to fatten the education cow.

Better yet, the minister of education should reverse his stance and accept that there is a huge cost to education which the Government can't support on its own and which cannot be free.

He should listen to the lyrics of the singing group, TLC:

"Don't go chasing waterfalls

Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you are used to."

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.