Editorial | The pied Piper and church schools
Ruel Reid, the education minister, is not a man who people tend to find it easy to digest. And he often makes it more difficult with an overbearing pomposity. The reflexive response of some persons, in the circumstance, is to be cynical every time Mr Reid crosses their radar.
That, however, doesn't mean that he is ignorant, that he has no good ideas, or that the public policy initiatives he pursues are all wrong. In any event, judging from an article yesterday in this newspaper by the shadow education minister, Ronnie Thwaites, Mr Reid has recently been making an effort to be less fustian in approach and to be inclusive and transparent in his communication.
During the development of the education budget for the coming fiscal year and in preparation of parliamentary review of the planned expenditure, Mr Thwaites reported, he and an opposition colleague were invited by Mr Reid to discuss "with great cordiality and collegiality" the education ministry's plans and programmes. "The result was one of the more civil, sharp, and enlightening reviews of the budget than experienced recently," said Mr Thwaites.
It may be useful, therefore, for church leaders whose denominations own schools funded by the Government to seek a reset of their relations with the education minister and, perhaps, also appreciate that Mr Reid may have legitimate public policy interests other than their own when committing taxpayers' money. Peter Espeut, who writes a column in this newspaper, and a member of the Ecumenical Education Committee, may not be far outside the frame with his reference to the administration's exercise of the principle that "he who pays the piper calls the tune".
At issue here is the fact that most of Jamaica's leading high schools are owned by churches. That is to say, the physical plants remain the legal property of the churches, which retain some, in recent decades - though limited, and declining - influence over the management and ethos of the institutions. Baldly, the Government pays the bills: teachers' salaries, utilities, and for services related to the education of children. Parents make a contribution.
There are two primary reasons why this is the case. Churches and private trusts, since the period of slavery, were at the forefront of the provision of education in Jamaica. The built schools provided the teachers, and so on. As Jamaica moved to internal self-government and, later, Independence, governments wanted to provide good-quality education to more children, and from a wider range of social circumstances, than were hitherto afforded the opportunity. It made sense that the State attempted to leverage existing institutions, especially when they were not building new schools at the rate required. It also takes time to develop high-quality institutions.
NOT A ONE-SIDED RELATIONSHIP
Yet, this was not a one-sided relationship. For while the governments sought to expand access to education, the churches and the trusts were finding it difficult to finance their schools. The government intervention was welcomed, even if the embrace may not have been wildly enthusiastic.
The arrangement worked reasonably well for a good stretch. The churches had a say in who sat on the school boards, and the fundamental character of the institutions remained. But it is the nature of things that power relations shift as one party in the arrangement grows stronger. In this case, the one that pays the bills and is accountable to a secular political structure. We suspect the Reid factor exacerbated the dynamic.
The churches have sought in recent years to reassert their influence. The easiest way would be to demand a return of their schools, which wouldn't be practical, even if it was legal. But they might do two things: state with clarity their concerns and engage the public in a serious discussion about their ideas. Second, if Mr Thwaites is to be trusted, a reset with Minister Reid may well be on.