Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Stop encouraging URA to tax private schools

My parents run a private school in Makindye. It’s been 22 years. The school has never turned a profit of more than sh1 million in any given term. What happens more often is that it runs out of cash before the term is out and my dad, poor Baba, digs into his pocket to sail it through. It always manages to pay him back but it also always needs to come back for more sooner or later. When the school needs to make big investments, my dad, poor Baba, takes out loans for it, because small business loan rates in Uganda are so high they would sink the school. The canteen that my parents run at the school turns a far higher margin than the school itself. I suspect the canteen is why they have kept that school open to this day. That, and the fact that it is a community institution now. If they closed it, all my brothers and their peers would probably never speak to them again. Like me, they would not have a primary school to name as their old school. The one I went to was, a few years ago, turned into a more profitable venture — a bar and car washing bay. 

Why does my parents’ and other less known private schools turn so little in profit? Providing education is frustratingly expensive, and for all that talk about how much Ugandans value education, they will only pay so much in school fees. In fact, as the school administrators who manage to charge a decent amount will tell you, once Ugandan parents pay over 400k for a three months term, they become unreasonably demanding. They then want the school to provide a pool table for their kids, the headteacher to participate in the sac race on sports day and free lunch be provided. 

Photo via @mumakeith on twitter 
Of course not every Ugandan parent is cheap like that. Some of you are willingly paying sh1.5m a term to Kampala Parents School, no? So, a school term is about 60 days. You are spending 25k a day to educate your child and it is killing you? So much that you want URA to go in there and get some of it back for you? Try keeping your child at home on that budget —hire someone to teach them something, entertain them, include a meal and tell me about it. Now, because schools collect so many of our children, they manage some economies of scale. But what is saved is often swallowed up again by the next year’s need for a new classroom block, buying off the neighbour who opened a bar right in front of the school gate, repainting the classrooms, and to drain the septic tanks or latrines. Armies of little humans are incredibly hard on infrastructure. If you look at this year’s financial books, you might see some profit, single digit millions. Before the next year opens, the school really needs you to pay school fees on the very first day because any and possibly all the above offline expenses mean they probably couldn’t even provide lunch through the first week if you didn’t pay up.   

When you drop a child off at St Lawrence next year, you will see a new classroom block and think, “ha, kyoka Mukiibi has made money out of us!” The truth maybe that Mukiibi probably would not have been able to admit your child if he hadn’t chosen to plough last year’s surplus into that new classroom block.

Providing education really is frustratingly expensive. I think that’s why it is left to government in most parts of the world. Unfortunately for Uganda, government falls far short of that responsibility. There are well over 30 primary schools in my part of Makindye but only one of them, and the poorest of them is government owned — Kibuye Primary School. If we all had to try and get our kids into Kibuye Primary, a) I would quit my job and home school mine because aint no way she’s getting that kind of education b) there would be riots as parents queue for miles outside the school gate. But we have private schools and it is quite easy to be petty and deploy URA to go get some of our money back without remembering the service gap they fill. 

If you are unhappy about the amount of money you are paying at the private school you took your child to, find another one. Take them to my mama’s school. We pay sh280k a term and our kids count and read just as fine as yours (Trust me, my nine year old is reading Charles Dickens). You don’t need a government tax regime to settle your vendetta with Sudhir. What that would do instead is allow government to profit from the fact that it isn’t providing adequate education in the first place. And, to the regular parent in Bwaise, URA skimming off schools' surplus income will mean that, their neighborhood school will a) hike fees to make it up, b) not accept fees in installments anymore because it can’t afford to. 

Dear journalists, instead of fanning the fire between URA and schools with antagonistic quotes and anecdotes, why don’t you actually look at the financial books of a good sample of private schools and tell us how much they are actually making vis-à-vis the proprietors' investment. How does that compare to say a bar and washing bay business? Maybe we can make more school proprietors see the light and go into bars for themselves, like my old teachers did. 

Related fact: I am attending a private university in the US that collects $63,000 a year from each student (in my program anyway) and raises three times its tuition revenue from donors & its endowment. It is tax exempt. In fact, it is registered as a non-profit. Maybe that is what we need to do for our private schools. Donate generously to them and lobby for them to be made non-profits so that we feel better about our money. Many private schools would jump at being publicly subsidized even if that meant they were going to be legally non-profit. They are practically non-profit. Many are. 



8 comments:

  1. Ok, wow!
    Thank you for enlightening me.

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    2. Community schools are spaces of skills incubation. Schools, especially community schools are spaces of social development and points of socialization. My own father started, maintained a school and a scholarship programme in what was rural Masaka then, but has now turned into one of the newly divided districts cut off greater Masaka. He sold 6 big houses in Bbunga, Kizungu Zone, Makindye Division. Each house had over two acres of green lawn and a roadside reserve. He sold these to run the schools from 1984-1997. He died without a medal nor a word of recognition from the government. Maybe we shall see some recognition posthumously. As I write this, I am an American citizen but am so conversant with how "hungry" the school was, I recall my father's passion to make the school stay an icon and how we the children had to give up time to teach there. I am sure the private schools started by government officials have readily-available cash from money-lined clientele ( read children of the middle class or ugandan elite). They will not suffer and will never be insolvent.

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    3. So enlightening. Thank you so much.

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  3. Schools, especially community schools are spaces of social development and points of skills incubation. My own father started, maintained a school and a scholarship programme in what was rural Masaka then, but has now turned into one of the newly divided districts cut off greater Masaka. He sold 6 big houses in Bbunga, Kizungu Zone, Makindye Division. Each house had over two acres of green lawn and a roadside reserve. They could each fetch over Ugx. 1 billion. He sold these to run the schools from 1984-1998. He paid salaries f over 25 staff every month on time as well as sick leave with pay. He provided holiday pay and helped the teaching staff construct homes. He gave to charity. He paid school fees for over 300 pupils in his lifetime plus all of us and the relatives who used to stay at our homes. He died without a medal nor a word of recognition from the government. Maybe we shall see some recognition posthumously. As I write this, I am an American citizen but am so conversant with how "hungry" the school was, I recall my father's passion to make the school stay an icon and how we the children had to give up time to teach there. I am sure the private schools started by government officials have readily present cash from money-lined clientele (read children of the middle class or ugandan elite). They will not suffer and will never be insolvent.

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  4. Hi Lydia, where is your mama's school? Can I come visit, please? I too have a 9 year old that I want to read Charles Dickens for 280k per term.

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