Public schools are under siege: It’s time to drastically revise their funding model
Funding public schools properly requires revising the tax system, the only effective way to redistribute the product of our collective labour to the benefit of everyone. Reimagining our schools requires being bold enough to imagine budget justice.
In the wake of Covid-19, many fee-dependent schools have found themselves in the predicament of being unable to sustain staff and operational costs, taking to social media to appeal via public letters and videos for “the community” to help them to pay teachers, fix toilets and support the general upkeep of the school.
While the problem is obviously exacerbated by the financial strain wrought by Covid-19 on families, it is not a novel problem. What we are witnessing through these public calls from school leaders is symptomatic of the attack on public education within the era of neoliberal governance, namely the under-funding of public institutions from the public fiscus, and the subsequent expectation that parents and/or private donors will privately supplement the difference between what is given and what is needed.
That schools who cannot command supplementation are financially unviable has been raised by multiple justice advocates, most notably through Equal Education’s lobbying on infrastructural norms and standards for schools. Issues of public budget inadequacy, which has sabotaged teaching and learning for the poor, have finally been brought to the surface by the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the new South Africa emerged out of isolation, policymakers were strong-armed into austerity logic to put a lid on education spending, and to draw on private sector supplementation through user fees. Increasing investment for all schools to levels thus far only reserved for whites was considered not to be viable.
With this adoption of neoliberal macroeconomic policy in the 1990s, ways of trimming expenditure were sought: South African schools faced large-scale teacher rationalisation which required many teachers to “take the package” or be redeployed elsewhere in the country. Unsurprisingly, many teachers with transferable skills or experience – now free of a colour bar that kept them in place – exited the system.
The teacher to pupil ratio was pegged at 1:40 in an attempt to equalise the distribution of teachers in public schools (note that a ratio of 1:40 makes for class sizes of 45+, depending on school organisation elasticities).
Instead of putting more money into education to reduce overall class sizes, teachers were “shed” from the system and only schools which could collect fees managed to reemploy some of those teachers through School Governing Body (SGB) appointments. The ability to pay SGB employees is, of course, inextricably tied to the school’s ability to sustainably attract user fees from parents, which – because of apartheid spatial arrangements – is also deeply linked to “where” a school is positioned and who is likely to attend.
While formerly white (euphemistically referred to as “Model C”), schools no longer exist in policy, they are quite alive in the popular imagination of parents: These schools are the ones which, in the main, have managed to retain their needed teachers through annual increases in school fees, and as such, they have been able to produce effective rhythms of teaching and learning far beyond the reach of those schools with fewer teaching and support staff.
This reality, layered on top of a history of racial inequality from colonialism and apartheid, contributes significantly to how a bi-modal system of education is sustained in South African schools: One system for parents who can top up the school budget and another (failing) system for those who can’t.
In more recent years, we have witnessed the gradual decline (see here and here), in overall government spending on basic education, placing a greater burden on school SGBs to raise funds via school fees or other fund-raising activities. This happens alongside increasing demand for classrooms and teachers, which in the large urban metros manifests as a lack of school placements for thousands of learners each year.
The impact of this decline extends beyond teacher and classroom shortages: It also translates into a narrowing of subject offerings for students who have poor parents (since subject offerings depend on teacher availability and class sizes), the inability of schools to attend to minor repairs (since government subsidies are insufficient and the location of schools place limits on fees that may be charged), and sometimes forces school leaders into the dilemma of deciding whether to retain an SGB staff member or fix the school toilets.
One school principal at Simon’s Town School writes in a public letter:
“This month, I have had to terminate the services of five of our staff members, one teacher, two Physical Education teachers, the Librarian as well as the Printing lady, as their services are deemed non-essential at this time and their salaries are paid by school fees, not by the government. The remaining 8 teachers have taken pay cuts of up to 40%, as they too are paid from school fees. They earned between R10,000 and R12,000 a month which is a pittance and quite embarrassing to say the least.”
It is worth mentioning that Simon’s Town School is a former “Model C”/white school, and that their situation, while obviously difficult, is considerably “better” than the majority of public schools that are located in the urban townships and rural areas.
By example, Fairmount High School’s (in Grassy Park), public appeal shows how funding shortages can imply the inability to attend to very basic school hygiene requirements:
“We are in dire need to refurbish the ablution areas for our learners to give them dignity. In order to achieve this objective we appeal to all kind-hearted citizens for assistance.”
Heathfield High School’s principal writes on the school’s Facebook page:
“We wish to thank all the people who donated towards the Heathfield High Relief Fund. To date, the princely sum of R20,321 was collected. This, in reality, would almost cover the wages of two workers. Unfortunately, we must see to the wellbeing of 11 SGB workers, and we will be dividing this so that they all at least receive something.”
A fundraiser from Good Hope Seminary School, a school nested in an affluent area of Vredehoek, but with learner population coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds and working-class parents reads:
“Our school is haplessly in financial dire (sic)! Our School Governing Body (SGB) staff faced the last two months with half or less than half of their salary while facing the inevitable harsh reality on their job loss or no salaries… We humbly put out a plea for any financial donations towards the funding of the SGB staff component.”
While the problems facing public schools differ in degree and scale, and mirror the spatialisation of race and class in South Africa, all public schools – indeed the very idea of public schooling – are under assault.
“Public” schools represent public and social goods, and not private commodities. They provide schooling to the public, for the benefit of the whole of society, and as such, the responsibility for the provision of public schooling and education is a public responsibility that must be secured through taxes. When the burden of responsibility is shifted onto parents through the extraction of school fees, schooling becomes commodified and the quality of provision is made dependent on how much money a child’s parents earn, in effect reproducing both educational and social inequality.
This erosion of the public through commodification and marketisation also produces space for profit-hungry private operators to enter into a new “market” of education, running schools for private gain (whether explicitly for-profit or by creating salaried jobs for themselves where none existed before under the guise of “non-profit” arrangements), all while depending on state resources either directly through subsidisation or indirectly through state-subsidised and trained teachers, and often simultaneously extracting user fees.
Aside from the precarity of employment that this privatisation produces for teachers, it places a high price on schooling for children and youth, a price which the majority of parents cannot afford. Schools – as the “producers” of “skilled labour” – thus sit in a contradiction: They are simultaneously to continue teaching “future workers” for the supposed knowledge economy (under the false guise of meritocracy and education as an emancipatory force), all the while increasingly being undermined in their work of affecting quality teaching and learning through depending heavily on the vicissitudes of parental income and market forces themselves.
Our public schools are in trouble if we are forcing schools into a position where they must depend on “kind-hearted citizens” to foot the bill for broken school toilets, when teaching and support staff, who are needed for the proper functioning of schools are deemed to be non-essential (for government to fund), and when qualified SGB teachers are expected to work for a pittance in full-time teaching posts.
How a society treats its children and youth is a reflection of its morality. Schools are social institutions that are entrusted with the care and education of children and youth, but when we require teachers to be satisfied to “at least receive something”, we risk jeopardising our future.
Perhaps it is time that we paid attention to the long erosion of the public system that has placed most of our schools in an untenable situation.
While we should applaud the commitment, tenacity and the spirit of sacrifice of all teachers, we must also realise that teachers are ordinary human beings. An anxious, financially stressed teacher, who probably has a family of their own, is less likely to engage in self-reflexive teaching practice; that the demands on their time of maintaining a second job will not afford them the time needed to hone their craft; that such situations encourage an arid “banking model” of education that reduces teaching to the act of depositing information into alienated students.
The solution to this problem is not for parents to rush their children to the private schools which will only be able to accommodate those with money, but rather to hold the government to account to provide a proper public schooling system in South Africa, funded through taxation and freely accessible to all, and where the quality of teaching and learning is not dependent on family incomes.
In a genuinely public schooling system, schools should not charge user fees. In a country that has been named “the most unequal country in the world”, funding public schools properly requires revising our tax system, the only effective way to redistribute the product of our collective labour to the benefit of everyone. Reimagining our schools requires being bold enough to imagine budget justice.
Doing so will also allow SGB-employed teachers and support staff to be made permanent staff members with benefits, respect and dignity that are afforded their state-employed colleagues. It will allow all children the opportunity to access physical education classes, music, art and sporting programmes, and school counselling services – all in institutions with sufficient staffing capacity – to retain strong rhythms of teaching and learning.
Bold as it may seem, this is a far more sustainable and defensible plan than the recently advertised posts for underpaid “teacher assistants” (see here) which not only aims to place unqualified teachers into the classroom, but which also serves up a grim warning to precarious teachers on the brink of unemployment of what kind of low-salaried future prospects might await them. The R5,000/per month being offered to such “teaching assistants” is exploitative, far below a living wage for anyone, unqualified or otherwise.
Recognising the futility of charity, teachers, parents and children are taking to the street to make their voices heard about the state of their schools. In reality, most schools were inadequately equipped even before our present Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers could have taken to the street before Covid-19, and they would have been justified in doing so. Covid-19 has come as a tipping point, a catalyst pushing many teachers and schools beyond the brink.
Perhaps it is time that we paid attention to the long erosion of the public system that has placed most of our schools in an untenable situation. This result is not a shortcoming of teachers, but an inevitable result of the underfunding of public schools and a 26-year pressure on public schooling. If we do nothing about it, can we really say that inequality in South Africa is not by design? DM
Ashley Visagie is a Canon Collins scholar studying for his PhD in education at the University of Cape Town. He is a co-founder of Bottomup, an organisation that promotes critical thinking and social justice among high-school youth, and a member of Thinking Space, a radical scholarship collective.
Sara Black is an education researcher, teacher and policy analyst. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, a research fellow on the Cases of Open Learning at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at UCT, and a co-founder of the Thinking Space Radical Scholarship Collective.
Xolisa Guzula is a PhD candidate and lecturer in language and literacy studies, with specific focus on multilingual and multiliteracies education at the University of Cape Town. She has an interest in language and literacy as social practice; biliteracy development; emergent literacy; critical literacies; multimodality; third spaces and bilingual children’s literature. She is a member of Bua-Lit, a collective of language and literacy researchers, activists, educators and teacher-educators.