Sat | Apr 20, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | Education disappointment

Published:Monday | March 11, 2019 | 12:16 AM

I began the analysis of the 2019-2020 Budget for education last Tuesday at the Standing Finance Committee of the House of Representatives by assuring the minister that the purpose was to offer critical support to the ministry’s objectives.

Even if one hand can’t clap, the posture of the political tendency which I represent is ever-faithful to the first and logical principle of education transformation, that this area of national life is so crucial that it must be spared the poisonous rancor of partisan scrapping.

That said, the sad truth is that the minister and the entire education enterprise has been disrespected and its value depreciated by the flat allocation of $109 billion, barely keeping pace with last year’s inflation, out of the total Budget of over $800 billion. And to compound the disregard, the capital allocation for this sector has been cut and is proposed to be reduced by some 70 per cent over the next three years.

So get the picture clearly about what is being done with the plenty money the Government is taking out of people’s pockets.

We justify spending large sums on national security and plan to impose harsher laws, robbing Jamaicans of their rights because we fail to invest enough in appropriate education and training.

Minister Ruel Reid meekly did not refute this proposition, but asserted that the sums to be voted were reasonable, that heads of expenditure could be adjusted, and that maybe more money would be available later on.

Truth is, he has been dealt a weak hand by his colleagues. And our children will be the ones to suffer as a result of the Government’s misplaced priorities.

This time, the money is available to afford the additional $15 billion of public expenditure required to maintain the pace of educational transformation.

During the era of stabilization, this would not have been possible, but things are different now. Revenues are higher than anticipated; the primary surplus target has been reduced, and we are even in a position to do without certain revenue sources.

Ask yourself, which of the measures announced for spending this year has the potential of significantly improving educational outcomes?

Everyone is grateful for the extra money for PATH school feeding and transportation, but when you spread it among the half of the 700,000 children in school, who the minister acknowledges need public assistance to attend and benefit from school, the daily sums remain pitifully inadequate.

What can a little over $100 for food buy but bag juice and Cheese Trix? And how far will $5 help transport poor students who, on average, are missing 20 per cent of classes, most often because of want of lunch money and bus fare?

WRONG PRIORITIES

The same day these wrong priorities were being stated without rebuttal, we heard the insistent advice of Dr Herbert Gayle, the social anthropologist, that we, everyone, should be spending “our last dollar” on education if the nation really hopes to rid itself of the GDP-sapping and blood-letting crime and violence, which no state of emergency or fiddling with the tax system can curb.

Do we believe him?

The finance committee exercise was frustrating because the minister, in his earnestness, kept speaking about plans which are clearly not funded, that is, if the published Estimates of Expenditure are to be treated as definitive.

So when is the Budget really not the real Budget? Where, for example, is the specific money coming from to build the solemnly promised new high schools in Old Harbour, Mile Gully, St James and Manchester?

There is talk about distortionary taxes. The greater underlying social and moral distortion facing the nation now is the chronic disconnect between the state of education and training and the goal of prosperity. And it need not be so, given the fruit of the sacrifices made by taxpayers in recent years.

No answer was given to the question of why the HEART Trust, with its $12-billion annual revenue, has been taken from the ministry of education and given to the already engorged Prime Minister’s Office.

A nuisance element muddying the review of the education landscape is this proto-fascist repression of everyone in the education sector from criticising a minister, the ministry or government policy.

And dangerously, the intent has already been exercised against the freedom of expression of Mrs Hayle and Messers Simpson and Thompson.

There is need for recanting and humble apology.

Also, referring the issue to the National Council on Education is a deceit, since it turns out that the council, unexplainably and, again, scandalously, is not functional!

The sector deserves better.

Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.