TO BE fair to the Simpson Miller administration, it has categorised the so-called auxiliary fees in secondary schools - those charges applied by principals for services other than tuition - to be an inescapable obligation for parents and guardians.
"These fees, which are worked out in conjunction with representatives of parents and principals, are not optional extras which you pay if you feel like," the education minister, Mr Ronald Thwaites, said in Parliament in June.
Mr Thwaites, thus, stated government policy. The fees are obligatory.
In that respect, barring technicalities, the authorities at the Edith Dalton James High School were within their legal rights to throw out of an exam that fifth-form boy whose case was highlighted by this newspaper yesterday. The morality of the action is another question.
While this newspaper concurs with the Government's position that parents should contribute to their children's secondary education, we believe that the administration has approached the matter with cowardice and an abject lack of clarity. Or, put another way, Mr Thwaites' parliamentary statement apart, the Simpson Miller administration has mostly waffled and wiggled on the subject, which, admittedly, is a political hot potato.
The Government this year allocated J$73.8 billion or approximately 12 per cent of its Budget to education, of which a little over a third (J$25.3) is being spent in the secondary system. This is an inadequate J$102,400 (US$1,100) per student.
The inability of the Government to spend more on education, combined with the difficult social circumstances in which too many of the country's citizens are asked to learn, tell in our poor education outcomes, particularly at the secondary level.
But the notion of free education is an unaffordable myth that the island's politicians like to peddle, until they are faced with the hard realities. It is these realities that forced the governing People's National Party in an earlier term to introduce in secondary schools 'cost-sharing', a euphemism for tuition fees.
Its promise to dump the system helped the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to win the general election of 2007. The JLP went further by declaring the auxiliary fees, which schools used to top up their finances, to be non-obligatory. There could be no sanctions for failing to pay.
Now back in office, the PNP has reintroduced the idea that parents have to pay for their children's secondary education. But it has been done with great timidity.
The point is, as the Government well knows, most people do not equate 'auxiliary fees' with an inescapable obligation to pay, as would be the case if they were told that they had to pay for tuition and given a charge for this. The concept of an auxiliary fee suggests paying for something, or some activity, in which they may, or may not, wish to participate. The Government likes that for it seems anodyne - non-threatening.
We feel that it is past time for a frank discussion about the financing of education and people to be told in clear terms that free education is not on and what portion of the bill they have to pay.
This going around the bush merely wastes time, causes angst, and contributes to poor educational outcomes.
The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.