Education or Charity?
At all levels, Jamaica’s education system is underfunded, but this problem is particularly appalling at the secondary level. Jamaican high schools have essentially become charities, with termly letters sent out to parents to solicit donations to cover basic operational costs. These letters have only become more frequent since last year’s misguided abolition of auxiliary fees. The government has ignored the suggestions of educators on the matter of under-funding and has instead further complicated the issue.
While traditional high schools may be able to survive off of donations from their very generous alumni networks, non-traditional high schools have an even harder time meeting the needs of their students. Most of these students come from impoverished backgrounds and may have learning difficulties that their guardians cannot afford to address.
Schools often have to go through the unnecessary stress of elaborate fundraisers such as lapathons, walkathons, concerts and food sales just to make ends meet, a large portion of which relies on unpaid student labour. The burden of this fundraising on teachers also cannot be denied, as it forces them into overtime with more hours spent organising elaborate bazaars than meaningful interaction with students.
Our schools becoming pseudo-philanthropic endeavours doesn’t just affect education itself. Budget restraints result in schools cutting back on sanitary essentials like soap and toilet paper in bathrooms and instead encouraging students to bring their own. More times than not, this only results in the pungent bathrooms we have all come to associate with high schools and the rapid spread of communicable diseases.
Corporations, from telecommunications giants like Flow and Digicel to fast food outlets like Juici Patties, have been quick to fill the gap left by the government but not without some somewhat oppressive conditions. They prey on the vulnerability of these institutions and the captive market that comes with it. They make sizeable donations to student welfare funds all while providing subpar service, and when students complain, they are silenced by the cash-strapped administration who have no affordable alternatives. For the administration, following up with the will of the students and ousting these harbour sharks would be a literal breach of contract.
At the heart of this problem is not only the government underfunding education but also their disregard for the suggestions of tenured educators. Historically, the underfunding of education can be attributed to austerity measures promoted by the IMF, however even this self-styled ‘prosperity’ administration has short-changed high schools in its attempt to make the institution more accessible.
As forecasted by educators, the haphazard abolition of auxiliary fees has only made it more difficult for high schools to secure funding for their operational costs. Even with a billion-dollar budget increase to the education sector, the government’s promises to fill the gap left by the abolition of mandatory fees has has fallen flat. Per student funding has only risen from J$11,000 to J$19,000, however Deputy Opposition Spokesman on Education, Michael Stewart has suggested that an adequate figure would be J$25,000 per student, J$35,000 at the sixth form level, and has cited research to bolster this figure.
Educators have lamented for years about the criminally underfunded education system and we can suppose this was the government's attempt to fix it. However, after one academic year, it is clear that their response has only complicated the problem since high schools are being forced to request more and more donations as less fees are being paid directly. The phenomenon of our high schools becoming charities is just a band-aid over a broken window which the government seems unwilling to fix.