Questioning Idasa

A more nuanced picture of inequalities in school financing is needed, write Doron Isaacs and Yoliswa Dwane.

Idasa’s recent report on school funding requires more critical reporting than it has received. The report created the impression that the poor are benefiting at the expense of the less-poor. This is problematic and misleading.

Key to moving past this misconception is the issue of school fees. With this reality taken into account, we can ask critical questions about equality rather than simply critiquing inequality between provinces. Most importantly, the report inadvertently distracts us from a bigger fish; the unfair distribution of teachers.

The report’s author, Russel Wildeman, draws attention to the plight of the so-called “middle schools”. These schools are neither wealthy nor poor enough to qualify for benefits given to schools in the bottom two quintiles.

Schools in these quintiles, which make up the poorest 40%, are nationally demarcated no-fee schools, and must receive the minimum per learner subsidy of R581 in 2008. It is worth noting, though, that Gauteng, Free State and the Western Cape have taken steps, including extending the option of no-fee schooling to quintile three schools and raising the minimum subsidy to R775.

As the report makes clear, interprovincial funding inequality at all quintile levels has been largely “solved”. More important would be to look at other markers of inequality: rural versus urban; middle class compared with working class; former Model C compared with former DET; suburban compared with township schools. With the legacy of the past, school fees unlock the present-day inequality puzzle.

In most provinces fee-paying quintile three and quintile four schools receive between R200 and R400 less than the poorest schools in quintile one. How does one effectively evaluate the position of these “middle schools” — underprivileged schools which nevertheless charge fees — without evaluating the average level of fees and the extent of collection? In the case of former Model C schools we know fees dwarf even the level of government funding to the poorest schools.

The 6:1 ratio, by which government favours the poorest quintile over the richest, is reversed a hundred fold by the collection of fees. Unlike during apartheid, when funding inequality could simply be measured by studying the discriminatory racial allocations, today when most public schools are permitted to charge fees the capacity of parents able to subsidise the state provision becomes the core determinant of inequality.

Perhaps most importantly, the Idasa report diverts attention from a more fundamental part of the funding equation: teachers. Public ordinary schools in the Western Cape — the area evaluated by Idasa — spend 91% on employees, mostly teachers, and 8% on norms and standards funding per learner subsidies.

Educator posts are allocated on the basis of a nationally determined formula which has no mechanism for redress and permits only a 5% additional allocation to poor schools. Schools of the same size receive similar numbers of teachers. Suburban schools fill these posts with well-qualified, and therefore better paid, teachers, whereas the total payment to teaching staff in township and rural schools is lower.

Former Model C schools often top up salaries and supplement their government-funded posts, with an equivalent number paid through fee-collection. While all schools are under pressure, teachers in township schools must teach classes of 50 learners — and mark that number of tests and projects — in difficult conditions, while earning less.

When one adds teachers’ pay, government spends only 3% more on the poorest schools than it does on the rich; this is according to the Western Cape government’s own performance assessment. Research also indicates that teaching a poor child, who doesn’t have a quiet place to do homework and whose parents are illiterate costs more, not less. This fraught reality, while offering no easy solutions, is a truer picture of the inequality in our schools.

Doron Isaacs and Yoliswa Dwane are, respectively, coordinator and senior researcher at Equal Education.

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