Mon | Oct 21, 2019

Mark Ricketts | Auxiliary fee approach is all wrong

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2019 | 12:18 AM
Holness
Mark Ricketts
1
2

Education affects everything and everyone. If conceived well and implemented properly, with emphasis on equalising options and opportunities in the society, it can improve learning across all classes and be a significant driver of economic growth.

But education is not free, and good education is expensive. Therefore, it is impossible for the Jamaican Government, with $2 trillion in debt, to carry the entire burden of funding education. When it does that, it misallocates resources, misdirects priorities, camouflages rigidities in the system, and masks the damaging effects of specific polices.

The result: Teachers in the high-demand subject areas carry too great a workload and are not incentivised financially to stay, especially in the upgraded high schools, where it is not uncommon to find roofs leaking and science labs in poor condition.

When these teachers leave, the children suffer. This perpetuates the existing inequality in the school system by disadvantaging large numbers of children. This is then carried forward to the working world, amplifying the widening maldistribution of income.

The education miscarriage is exacerbated further by a 1980 education regulation that thwarts attempts to address situations where demographic shifts account for more teachers than are required in some schools while others have fewer than what they desperately need.

The regulation, as interpreted, is that once a teacher is hired, he or she is tenured for life, so a school may have a dwindling school population and poor results but could have double-digit guidance counsellors. Yet another school, bursting at the seams because of demographic shifts, might be inadequately staffed.

Former Minister of Education Ronnie Thwaites found the negative effects of this asymmetry and his own powerlessness in getting support from the PNP, the JLP, and the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) frustrating.

As for misdirecting priorities, this is a crying shame. A good example is auxiliary fees.

Everybody seems to feel that because education is a social good, Government must find the money to fund it. Repaying the huge national debt is onerous enough, but people believe, or are led to believe, that in an age of prosperity, waste, misuse of funds, and a fairly healthy inflow of foreign direct investments, there must be money sloshing around somewhere.

This is probably true. How else can you explain the prime minister reiterating at the beginning of this school year that parents do not have to pay auxiliary fees, registration fees, or whatever fees you want to call it? “No child should be denied an education because the parents can’t pay,” he declared.

Government increased subventions last year and spent $34.1 billion on secondary education, amounting to $170,000 per child. I do not think most children or parents are aware of, much less appreciate, the level of the Government’s expenditure. Even so, schools still have a shortfall, something the PM conceded with the words, “I am not saying the expenditure is adequate.”

If it is not adequate, how do schools cover their shortfall? Government does not have the money to fully fund quality education, yet the prime minister relieved many parents of making a contribution by declaring forcefully, “Parents are not obliged to pay.”

I suppose you can call the PM’s empathetic understanding of the plight of parents, the politics of personal affection and the economics of party re-election.

The PM’s declaration follows the trend started by former Minister of Education Ruel Reid, who, like the PM, regarded auxiliary payments as obligatory prohibitive fees and reminded parents that they didn’t have to pay. (“When I say education is free, I mean it is free.”)

Decline in inflows

Whenever a minister of education, and worse, the prime minister, offers this option of a freebie, where parents can determine their spending choices and not include any payment, the schools experience a sharp decline in inflows. Parents contend, “If Government says you don’t have to pay, what you paying for!”

Mind you, Campion, Wolmer’s, Immaculate, St Andrew, and other high-demand, top-tier schools that have leverage are bent on maintaining their impressive standards, therefore, auxiliary payment is a must. Parents, unless given special dispensation, in private, by the school administrator, have to pay.

The irony of parental contribution is evident with aspiring or affluent parents who will pay a fortune each term for prep-school fees, extra lessons, and extra-curricular activities to ensure that their children are given the best opportunity to gain access to elite high schools.

Once the children are successful, parents save a bundle in that the $30,000 or $40,000 auxiliary fees per term are a drop in the bucket to the overall cost of education each term while the child was at prep school. Top-tier schools that collect those amounts in auxiliary fees – and most parents pay – will always outperform those that are underfunded.

Schools without sufficient leverage have to think of creative ways, including special event days, to get parents to contribute.

Interestingly, the previous PNP government devised a framework of institutionalising acceptance by parents of the need to make some payment to the schools. Many parents saw it as an obligation and made an effort even if it was less than what schools requested.

Parents not having the wherewithal to contribute had to convince the principal, in private, to absolve them of their responsibility. By and large, the system worked.

Once the JLP invoked the assurance of prosperity as its election theme, prosperity was validated by increasing subventions to the schools by 54 per cent. It was still inadequate, so relieving parents of their responsibility made no sense.

Now, the mining sector, which contributes 40 per cent to our paltry exports, is losing a major player, hopefully, for a short time. Aluminium prices have nosedived since last year. There is surplus alumina on the world market. And our dollar has devalued.

However well intentioned is the JLP administration, changes must be made. There is not enough money in the kitty to respond to the plight of nurses; to keep our maths teachers; to upgrade infrastructure in schools; or to pay attention to junior doctors’ cry of bed-space shortage and outdated equipment in public hospitals.

The Government does not have to play the prosperity big shot. The $105-billion education ministry budget indicates that something is wrong with education. Moreover, the Government should allocate more of its education budget to the upgraded high schools, which receive inadequate auxiliary fees.

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