Private schools fight for funds
Children's basic right to education is jeopardised when private schools do not get full subsidies from the government.
This was argued in the Constitutional Court yesterday by an organisation representing private schools that went to court to claim R23-million it feels the schools were entitled to.
The low-fee private schools had believed they would receive about R75-million in government subsidies in 2009, but they received only R52-million.
The case is one of many this year in which the national Department of Education has been taken to court.
"Every aspect of education is currently under scrutiny" said Ann Skelton of the Centre for Child Law.
Yesterday's case began in 2008 when KwaZulu-Natal's department of education sent a letter to about 98 low-fee private schools saying it would give them "an approximate R75-million" in subsidies for 2009.
Due to budgetary constraints, the department paid only about 70% of the promised amount, leaving many private schools underfunded.
In court papers, advocate Omar Moosa SC, for the schools, said: "It is not genuinely disputed that the failure to pay the promised subsidy has caused major difficulties for various schools - and that schools might have to close."
He said the government had to uphold the promise it made in the letter.
The government argument is that the letter offering "an approximate R75-million" was merely to guide schools on what to expect. It stresses the word "approximate" and argues that the letter did not amount to a contract that it had to uphold. The High Court ruled in the government's favour.
The schools approached the Constitutional Court.
The government argued it could not pay the full subsidy as both the provincial and national education departments were over budget in 2009 and the government's legal obligation was to fund public schools first.
Moosa yesterday conceded that, although the constitution allows private schools to exist, they do so at their own expense; the state does not have to offer them subsidies.
But he asked how the government thought it could afford to accommodate private school pupils if their schools were forced to close due to budgetary constraints. He said it would cost the government 17 times more per pupil than paying a subsidy.
The Constitutional Court judges might suggest the case be sent back to the High Court to be re-argued.
Judgment was reserved.