Labour more interested in entrenched vested interests and ideological bogeymen than real debate, says Elaine Byrne
Beware. Eight weeks to budget day. Be on high alert for straw men, optical illusions and kite flying. It was so bad last December that the government actually considered bringing the budget forward this year.
But the show must go on.
Rationality, objectivity and perspective (ROP) have been held captive to emotionally charged arguments with a nod to entrenched vested interests and ideological bogeymen.
May I present you with the classic and timeless example that is Labour and fee-pay schools.
The Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has to find €77m in savings from the €9bn education budget. That's an 8.5 per cent cut.
Ireland's 56 fee-paying schools were granted €95m in State subsidies last year.
Alan Kelly, a Labour minister of State, told RTE's The Week in Politics last Sunday that this subvention was a "luxury rather than a necessity" and must come to an end. The Dublin South West Labour TD Eamonn Maloney described it as "education apartheid", while the Teachers' Union of Ireland described it as a "huge subvention of privilege".
So, the argument goes that the state should not support elitist Dublin south secondary schools such as Blackrock College, Willow Park School and St Andrew's College. These schools get €5m a year in fee income from the parents of the affluent teenagers like those portrayed in the superb movie What Richard Did. Ross O'Carroll-Kelly heartland.
Why should the state pay the salaries of teachers for the well-heeled adolescents that occupy the hallowed halls of Glenstal Abbey, Gonzaga, Clongowes, Scoil Mhuire in Cork or Sligo Grammar School?
It's easy of course to see why all this is of intense appeal to the emotive accepted wisdom of Labour grassroots. At their annual conference in Galway last April, the party accepted three motions, no less, condemning the very "existence" of fee-schools which produced an "imbalanced education system". What exactly is the economic rationale of getting rid of the subvention?
The results of an audit into how fee-paying schools spend the estimated €120m they get from the fees they charge parents is due shortly.
But let's go back to our friend ROP (rationality, objectivity and perspective). Are fee-paying schools costing the state extra money?
No. The state does not pay additional money. In fact, the state contributes less.
The only provision the state makes toward private schools is teacher salaries. Teachers are directly employed by the state, not the individual schools, and therefore receive the same rate of remuneration regardless of whether they teach at a private or a public school.
The fee-paying sector does not receive capitation grants, unlike their State counterparts. They instead use the fees for maintenance, heating, light and discretionary spending such as sports facilities and the provision of a wider range of subjects.
A 2012 Pricewaterhouse-Coopers report, commissioned by the fee-paying sector, found that the government saves €91m by not paying capitation grants. Based on Department of Education figures, the annual cost to the state for a fee-paying student is €4,500 per annum and €8,000 for non-fee-paying. This €91m saving assumes a scenario where all 26,000 fee-paying students transfer to non-fee-paying schools.
So what would happen if the state refused to pay out the State subsidy for teacher salaries?
In his unsuccessful appeal to party members last April, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore argued that "irrespective of whether the pupils are attending private schools or public schools, they're still at school anyway and the money would have to be paid". A sentiment shared by ASTI president Pat King on Newstalk on Monday.
If private schools have to close because they cannot afford to pay for teachers with their fees income, they would just convert into public schools. The cost would still be borne by the state.
The Labour backbenchers' economic argument for abolishing the subvention to the fee-paying schools is blown out of the water.
But this is not about economics, if it were, ROP would apply. That goes for Fine Gael too. The Dun Laoghaire TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor did not do the prospects of a calm debate any favours with her Morning Ireland interview during the week when she described the potential cuts as "sectarian".
The perception of unequal subvention toward private schools was given ammunition with a €30m allocation in building grants between 2000-2011. Although this worked out at just 0.6 per cent of the overall spending on school infrastructure, this was excessive when public schools remained confined to prefabs. Ruairi Quinn stopped that policy of investing capital funding in fee-paying schools last year.
Of course state support should be more conditional when it comes to admission policy. It could potentially be used as an incentive to target more disadvantaged children.
So where can the €77m in savings be made? Well, the government could claw back on the €5,000 tax break it introduced for school fees following lobbying by the IFSC.
The pupil-teacher ratio has already been cut twice for the fee-paying sector since 2009. The Department of Education will only fund 21 students for a teacher instead of a 19:1 ratio at other schools.
Quinn will probably employ that predictable tactic again -- have less teachers instead of cutting core pay. This at a time when Ireland needs more teachers, not less, because we have the highest birth rate in Europe.
ROP has gone awol.
The terms of the Croke Park agreement mean over 70 per cent of the education budget is untouchable because it's in pay and pension payments. The 400 second-level teachers and 32 Department of Education officials who earn over €100,000 a year are also off limits.
Have you ever heard a mute sheep give birth? Neither have I.
What about those Labour warriors who ideologically battled on the fee-school frontline during the week? Robert Dowds, Aodhan O Riordan and Eamonn Maloney are silent on how 70 per cent of the department's budget is spent but are instead content to whip up class conflict on what amounts to one per cent of the department's finances.
So too are their comrades in arms, the Teachers Union of Ireland.
Give me a break.
This column was brought to you courtesy of a community school education with a 26:1 student teacher ratio.