EDITORIAL – Cayman education: Divided schools lead to divergent futures

Quality education is the only ticket out of poverty for far too many. It is the passport not only to well-paying jobs but, even more importantly, to a rich, fulfilling life.

For that reason, we were delighted (but nevertheless dismayed) as Premier Alden McLaughlin last week described the effective segregation of the Cayman Islands public school system as “one of the greatest setbacks not just to education, but to the society we have.”

That assertion is correct and, if anything, an understatement. The marooning of Caymanian students in failing government schools, while expatriates and wealthier Caymanians attend far superior private schools, is a sure path to divergent and unequal futures.

We simply cannot reconcile Premier McLaughlin’s observation from his actions (or inactions) on the issue, first during his tenure in 2005-2009 as Minister of Education, and now as he is winding up his four-year term as premier and leader of the Progressives government.

Put simply: Why has not he used his considerable influence to remediate this unacceptable condition that is crippling future generations of young Caymanians?

Actually, it was not so long ago that Cayman’s government schools did accommodate all children living in the territory. However, the blossoming of the “Cayman economic miracle” resulted in an influx of fresh foreign residents and government officials made a cold-blooded and ultimately toxic miscalculation: Make free public education an entitlement program for Caymanians only.

In so doing, they introduced an inequitable system of “double taxation” on expatriate families, who are forced to pay a “formal tax” to fund schools their children cannot attend, and also an “informal tax” in the form of private school tuition.

Recent generations have borne witness to the results of this blunder: Stemming from necessity, the private school system has flourished while the public schools have languished. Today, despite the high cost, more than 40 percent of Cayman’s students now attend private schools.

After students graduate from this “two-tiered system,” they “meet” in the marketplace and, on this little island, compete for the same jobs. It is an unfair fight. The private and public school alumni may as well be strangers from two different worlds.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued what many consider to be its finest decision of the 20th Century. In a case known as “Brown v. Board of Education,” the justices unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and must be eliminated “root and branch.” The case was based on race but is equally cogent when applied to other standards in other venues, such as country of origin and economic circumstances.

Unfortunately, Cayman’s school segregation has been in existence long enough that the problems with public education have ossified, calcified and fossilized. “Fixing” Cayman’s public schools won’t be as simple as reintegrating them. Public schools must be improved to the extent that they are attractive to all families who live here, regardless of nationality or economic realities.

A small glimmer of hope can perhaps be found in the newly passed Education Bill, which includes language opening the prospect of publicly funded but privately administrated schools (akin to U.K. “academies” or U.S. “charter schools”). We remain agnostic as to who operates particular schools in Cayman. Our only concern is accessibility and student achievement.

In the months approaching the election, the Cayman Compass will have much more to say on this topic in these editorials as we consciously put forth the future of education in Cayman as the number one issue, not just in the campaign, but in the country.

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