Deika Morrison's Crayons Count initiative is proving a good prism through which to view the dysfunction in Jamaica's early-childhood education system and why it makes sense that it is fixed.
Ms Morrison has now done another good turn by reminding the Jamaican authorities that this is not merely a moral issue. It is a contractually entrenched obligation the Jamaican state has with its children.
Herein lies the Government's argument for the politically difficult decision, that is, rebalancing the education budget, it may have to take to fulfil its commitment.
A year ago, as Ms Morrison reminded, Jamaica's Parliament approved a new Charter of Rights, replacing the old section three of the Constitution, to give greater clarity to the rights and freedoms of its citizens.
Section 13 (k) of the Charter declares it a right of every child, "who is a citizen of Jamaica, to publicly funded tuition in a public educational institution at the pre-primary and primary levels".
On the basis of this binding obligation, Earl Witter, the public defender, whose mandate includes protecting citizens' rights from infringement by the state, could possibly find cause for action on behalf of thousands of children who do not now enjoy this right. Conceivably, too, individual parents and caregivers could, on their own accord, institute action against the state.
Given the recency of the undertaking, however, this newspaper would not, at this stage, promote such action. Nonetheless, we believe it incumbent on the Government to declare a timetable for the broad fulfilment of the letter and spirit of its obligation.
This does not mean that we expect that, in short order, every Jamaican child between the ages of three and 12 to be in institutions where all costs are met by the state. However, we expect that all children, at the earliest stage of their educational development, should, notwithstanding their social and economic antecedents, be assured of access to institutions that have the capacity for delivering a high, professional standard of stimulation without cost being a barrier.
But, as we have previously noted in these columns, Jamaica's early-childhood education is provided primarily by nearly 3,000 community-based basic schools. They are mostly in run-down buildings with too many children and too few teachers, most of whom are untrained, under-trained and poorly paid. At near minimum-wage pay, those who get trained have little incentive to remain.
Difficult to solve
Finding a solution has been difficult. We believe there is a way to start.
Jamaica allocates $2.1 billion, a mere three per cent of its education budget, to the early-childhood sector. Most this goes as grants to basic schools. It is far from enough. This shows in the poor quality of delivery from the early-childhood sector. Perhaps half the children it prepares are not ready for primary education.
The estimate is that it needs an additional $8 billion a year to bring the sector up to acceptable standards.
One potential source of some of this money in the short term is by rebalancing the education budget, by reallocating to early-childhood education some of the 15 per cent of the education ministry's spending that now goes to the tertiary sector.
The Government has a compelling argument in support of such a move: funding early-childhood and primary education is a constitutional obligation.
Jamaica Gleaner, Thu, Apr 5th 2012