Cayman's principal education lesson: Subtraction by division

East End MLA Arden McLean posed a constitutional query: Does the government’s current practice of allowing only Caymanian students to attend public schools run afoul of the Cayman Islands’ Bill of Rights?

To which, Education Minister Tara Rivers, a trained attorney, provided a most lawyerly response: “There is no policy that disallows non-Caymanian children. There is a hierarchy in terms of who can access spaces first.”

Those “spaces,” of course, tend to run out soon after the Caymanian students have been placed. According to Cayman’s Human Rights Commission, education officials have previously stated that 90 percent of children in government schools were Caymanian. Additionally, the government provides private schools with a grant of around $550 annually for each enrolled student.

That, by the way, is a small fraction of the cost incurred on a per-student basis by our public school system, and is significantly less than most private schools charge in tuition per student. (Lest anyone decry private schools as being unnecessarily expensive, remember that Cayman’s private schools generally spend about the same or less per student than our public schools do.)

Mr. McLean also notes that foreign workers must register their children with a private school before a work permit would be granted, a policy he believes amounts to the denial of the right to a free education, contrary to the Bill of Rights.

For the record, our Constitution states: “Government shall seek reasonably to achieve the progressive realization within available resources of providing every child with primary and secondary education which shall … be free.”

Whether our education system would pass muster under the Bill of Rights is a question for the courts.

The important point is this: Cayman’s schools may not be “legally” segregated – but they are “effectively” segregated.

Through intention or inability, our government’s failure to provide equal public educational opportunities to Caymanian and non-Caymanian children has brought great harm to both groups and to our society as a whole.

While politicians and attorneys may quibble over whether Cayman’s public education policy is “Caymanians first” or “Caymanians only,” there is no disputing that it is the single most divisive policy in the country. Cayman’s schools are not only segregated in terms of “Caymanians vs. non-Caymanians,” but also in terms of “haves vs. have-nots.”

Isolated in an inadequately performing public school system, Caymanian students, whose parents do not have the means to send them to private school, do not benefit from the greater degree of rigor, safety and freedom of choice enjoyed by their non-Caymanian, and wealthier Caymanian, peers.

Thus, the less-privileged Caymanian children exist in a world apart, a smaller and more insulated sphere with less exposure to outside cultures, which in Cayman (whose population is split about equally between Caymanians and expatriates) comprise “the other half.”

Missing from that equation are the unknown number of non-Caymanian children whose parents cannot possibly afford private school tuition in Cayman – not on wages paid to workmen and domestic helpers – and so who are left behind “back home,” entrusted to the care of family and friends, while their parents attempt to do something better for them “over here.”

It is an invisible consequence of Cayman’s immigration and education paradigm.

No wonder, then, that discord has manifested itself in Cayman. The conflict between Caymanians and expatriates, and the poor and the rich, is a strife among strangers, who live near to each other without ever becoming neighbors, in the fullest sense of the word.

Cayman can do better than this – regardless of the cold financial and political calculations executed in the past and carried on into the present. Yes, we do have the resources to do better for our children, all of them, starting with education.

We have the means. But do we have the vision and, more importantly, the will?