Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Ian Boyne | JTA must endorse non-mandatory fees

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 8:00 AM

The Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) should have ended its annual conference last week with the strongest endorsement of the Government's non-mandatory fee policy. The opposition to the Government's announcement of the abolition of auxiliary fees is driven largely by fear, misinformation, miscommunication, mistrust and special interest pleading.

Parents are fearful that a policy ostensibly in their interest will end up harming their children's interest in gaining a good education, and principals worry that they will be strapped for cash to run their schools. All kinds of apocalyptic nightmares are foreshadowed as a coalition of the terrified swap horror stories of what will befall education when the Government makes good on its election promise.

The People's National Party (PNP), which, given its rich history of socialist thought and practice, should be expected to back this progressive policy initiative, has been a principal opponent. A most regrettable development. That its education spokesman, Catholic Deacon Ronald Thwaites, one of the brightest and most intellectually sophisticated persons to have entered Jamaican politics, should be now decrying this policy as mere 'freeness mentality' is scandalous. Ronnie, with his strong tradition of Catholic social thought and a lifetime of progressive engagement, should be championing this initiative to give educational access to poor people's children.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has told Parliament that the Government wants to enshrine access to secondary education as a constitutional right. The PNP should not allow the JLP to carry out this historic move without its active support.

The prime minister made a telling point in a television interview recently when asked whether Government could afford free access to secondary education. He said it was about what the Government chooses to put its priority on. In other words, Government decides among contending options what goes into a Budget. Government has to decide among priorities. It chooses on the basis of its philosophical commitments or pragmatic considerations. In fact, Ronnie Thwaites himself used to say profoundly that a budget is "a theological document" - meaning, that it is a statement of philosophical priorities reflecting certain values. Precisely.

The Holness administration has chosen to prioritise education and to make access free up to the secondary level. To dismiss this as 'freeness mentality' is politically backward and unworthy of a party such as the PNP. Michael Manley should be rolling in his grave.

"When a child sits the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) and is placed at the secondary level, this placement is based on performance. Parents should not be burdened with mandatory fees ... . Secondary education is an entitlement." Absolutely.

 

Education is important

 

The prime minister went on to say, "Schools should not be forced to charge fees for services that the ministry should be providing. Education is just too important to have any barriers to access." That is a critically important point. Progressives are ideologically bound to support such a philosophical position. Only political expediency or misunderstanding of the issues could cause one to do otherwise.

There is a growing right-wing, minimalist view of Government which says the State should pull back and private individuals must pull up themselves by their own bootstraps. It's the Republican, Tea Party Gospel. Anything other than 'individual responsibility' is 'freeness mentality'. This is nonsense on stilts. The State has a moral obligation to its poor and marginalised. It must so prioritise its spending as to ensure that children of the poor have access to education, which is the greatest lever of social mobility and the means of cauterising intergenerational poverty. How a progressive party like the PNP finds itself on the wrong side of history on this one, I don't know, outside of sheer political expediency.

I have just finished reading a fascinating defence of Government in national development titled 'American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper' (2016). This work by political science professors Jacob Hacker (Yale) and Paul Pierson (University of California at Berkley) is rich in data, showing how state action and policy built American prosperity. Reading this book alone provides an antidote to the widespread ignorance that is being promoted by free-market fundamentalists.

Says 'Government Amnesia' about education: "Formal schooling probably plays the starring role in the so-called Flynn effect the generation-to-generation rise in IQ scores in industrialised societies documented first by political scientist James Flynn. Again and again, studies find schooling to be a major, often the major, factor in transformation. ... The sustained prosperity of the West was built, in significant part, on the school ground."

 

Economic powers

 

The authors go on to say, "Education is not merely a private investment, but a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. It's no coincidence, then, that nations that became the world's dominant economic powers led the world in the expansion of schooling. Education increases the productivity of workers. No less important, it increases opportunities for those on the periphery of the labour force or outside it altogether."

So if the work of the Economic Growth Council is to be successful and Andrew Holness is to really see his prosperity plan come to fruition, the move to abolish mandatory schools fees is a necessary corollary. This policy is part of an integrated view of economic development. It is shortsighted to oppose it. But what about the practical side? What about the real fear that Government will leave schools underfunded and resource-starved? Well, let's confront this phobia.

First, Government has increased funding for secondary education from $2.6 billion to $5.3 billion. For the first time ever, schools have been given a significant part of their funding from June. So they are in a better cash-flow position today than they have ever been. Less than 50 per cent of auxiliary fees were being collected anyway. Parents were not finding the money to pay. The vast majority of schools will be getting a guaranteed source of income from Government now - funds they were not getting before. Per-student contribution has moved from $11,500 to $19,000.

One of the facts that have not come out clearly is that in addition to boosting per-student contribution, Government has increased its funding for school operations generally. One was getting the impression that the schools would be left under-resourced if they did not get auxiliary fees. Government is not only providing tuition support for schools, but support for infrastructural works, maintenance, operational expenses, science labs, ICT, technical and vocational equipment, solar energy and part-time staffing.

Besides, schools are supposed to submit their budget to the ministry and they are encouraged to come in and talk to the ministry if they are faced with special budgetary problems. They are not left to sink or swim. There is no one-size-fit-all approach by the ministry. I am contesting the view that these schools are going to collapse because they won't be able to threaten children for not giving in to their demands for 'contributions'.

 

Psychological burden

 

And it is a lie that children were not being affected by non-payment of fees. Their exam results were held back. They were being harassed for fees. Some had their names on lists. Their peers at school knew that their fees were not paid. Children were emotionally traumatised by a policy of fees. Even when some children were not turned back, they were embarrassed and humiliated. Children should not have to go through that to get an education. The minister of education has lifted a huge psychological burden from poor people and their children by making it clear that no child should be turned back and no fees are mandatory. Don't tell me that children were not threatened with being turned back. I saw distressed poor people frightened by authority who could not sleep because they feared their children's being out of school because they didn't have the 'contribution'.

Ruel Reid's emphasising that fees are not mandatory provides solace to poor people and lessens, if not eliminates, poor people's fear of school opening. Poor people's children are passing for Immaculate, Wolmer's, Ardenne, and Campion, so don't say the huge amounts usually demanded can easily be afforded by that constituency. Poor people pickney go to those 'stush' schools and must not be humiliated because they don't have the fees. This is a struggle for equal rights and justice.

Those parents who can afford to support the schools should pay. Many parents are willing to pay. But there are some people who just cannot afford to pay, and it's not because they are buying expensive hair, Deacon Thwaites. They can't buy food. The policy of non-mandatory fees is a blessing to them. Whatever benefits the poor and dispossessed receive and have a positive multiplier for economic growth, I support. And so should all well-thinking persons.

• Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.