The decision on the part of the government to impose VAT on private education seems premised on the notion that those who send their children to private rather than public schools are financially sound and should therefore make an additional contribution to government coffers. Apart from the absurdity of that contention, other comments dismiss private schools as suitable for those who are unable to ‘cut it’ in the public schools. This kind of thinking is divisive, unfortunate and unnecessary. All children deserve a good education and private educators should be viewed as partners with government in delivering this education. It is the failing of the Ministry of Education (MoE) that it has not registered, classified, regulated and constantly inspected all private schools in Guyana to ensure quality and safety standards are met. The MoE has abdicated its responsibility by only managing and regulating public schools as it ought to ensure that all children, irrespective of whether they are in a private or a public school in the country, receive decent education. In other words, the MoE must ensure that education proprietors and entrepreneurs are suitably equipped to offer education services. The MoE must ensure that all schools – whether private or public – have adequate security and safety arrangements and guidelines. The MoE must also ensure that all schools adhere to the national guidelines on curricula, contact hours and age requirements, unless special exemptions are granted. Only those private schools that meet the MoE’s multiple standards must be allowed to operate. Such a proactive approach not only ensures that children receive the education they deserve but also ensures that many Guyanese parents who sacrifice to send their children to these schools receive value for money.
The public-private education model utilised by Caricom and other South American states is instructive. It is premised upon the following:
- That the existence of private schools enhances the accessibility and quality of education and produces a vibrant, diverse educational environment
- That private schools offer an alternative for a number of students including those unable to access the public schools due to special needs, poor capacity in area allocated schools; those who seek educational certification beyond the normal age requirements due to some disruption in their schooling; and those who seek a religious orientation for their overall educational experience
- That parents who invest in private education save taxpayers billions of dollars annually since the government does not need to construct and maintain additional public schools to accommodate more children and is not obligated to pay staff.
In recognition of the fact that parents and private schools help to alleviate some of the costs associated with educating their nations’ populations, Caribbean and South American governments including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Suriname, Brazil have partnered with private schools. Governments in the aforementioned countries therefore provide:
- subventions to assist in teaching specialist subjects including the sciences;
- Subsidies and/or full assistance to private schools to cover staff grants and salaries;
- bursaries for eligible students on a needs basis or bursaries for all enrolled students except foreign nationals, which offset their parents’ total cost;
- support in teacher training by including private schools in state sponsored professional development workshops for educators and administrators working in private schools.
In other words, there is the clear recognition that both public and private educational institutions offer needed and useful services that advance the countries’ overall educational agenda. In Guyana, private schools aren’t superior to public schools and neither are public schools superior to private schools. It is a reality though that schools – whether public or private ‒ that have access to greater/better resources, human, physical, material or financial ‒ produce better results in national/regional assessments.
In trying to understand the rationale behind this application of VAT on private education, I searched to find a country where a similar policy is being employed and I am yet to encounter one where citizens are taxed for utilizing private educational facilities at the nursery, primary and secondary levels. Bangladesh though imposes a 7% VAT for private university education. In essence, Guyana might well be the only nation currently imposing such an oppressive tax at the nursery, primary and secondary levels. Surely the cost of Guyana’s reputation as a nation that prioritises education is worth more than the 300 plus million the Minister of Finance expects to garner from this tax.
More than most, President David Granger who is well schooled in Guyanese history knows that Guyanese have had a long history of sacrificing for our children’s education, evident since the immediate post emancipation era. Educa-tion has always represented a way out of poverty and Guyanese have long grasped the transformative potential of education not only for the individual but for the entire family. Public utterances prior to and after being elected suggested that President Granger understood that deep commitment of Guyanese to their children’s education. The acceptance of this VAT on private schooling suggests perhaps not. Unless reversed, I dare say history will judge President Granger and his administration for this tax and I expect that judgment to be harsh.