How are these improvements being achieved?
Education in South Africa is relatively decentralized. The Constitution makes education a “concurrent” matter. Implementation is largely a provincial matter governed by provincial legislation. Provincial governments are, for example, the employers of teachers. National education legislation prevails over provincial legislation in certain circumstances: where it is a matter of correcting inter-province issues, and where setting up national standards and policies is needed to preserve uniformity and homogeneity. The national level sets policy, but implementation is up to the provinces. Furthermore, a province’s education budget is determined largely by its own legislature and cabinet. The budget is financed largely via grants and transfers from the national government. These transfers do not stipulate how much each province must spend on education: they are multi-sectoral block transfers driven by a formula (the “Equitable Shares Formula”). This process of revenue sharing has been relatively successful, though not without criticism. Relative to apartheid financing, equity is generated by making the formula largely population-driven. Importantly, the formula does not produce absolute amounts of funding, nor is it based on a sense of “adequacy” or “costed norms” approach to meet needs: it simply produces shares of revenue that are then divided amongst claimants on that revenue in what is hopefully an equitable manner.16 The reasons for this are complex and have been subject of much debate, but the situation is that at present national government favors a simple shares approach. Education is an important nominal “driver” of the allocation, in that it carries a weight of 41% in the total allocation of shares. Thus, one could take 41% as the nominal proportion of its revenue share that a province “should” spend on education. In practice, internal provincial allocations to education come fairly close to this proportion, on average, though they vary. Each province’s share of the total allocation is thus driven by each province’s share of education “need.” Education “need” in turn is driven by the average of school-aged population and enrollment. Population is used as a driver, in addition to enrollment, to minimize incentives for repetition and to encourage efficient flow-through. (This is coordinated with a national educational policy norming flow-through.) Provincial spending per learner can thus vary largely depending on a) the gap between population and enrollment, b) how much internal revenue each province has in addition to what it derives as a share of national revenue (which in most cases is less than 10% of total provincial revenue), and c) how much of its total revenue it chooses to spend on education versus other social and economic needs. This approach was applied in a phased manner, starting from a baseline that was historically driven.
Only one of the drivers in the formula is related to poverty, namely a “backlogs” component which has a weight of only 3%, and is used to give more funding to provinces with particularly poor school (and other) infrastructure. Furthermore, the formula contains a driver that returns revenue to each province in proportion to the degree of national output the province generates, and this component has a weight of 8%. Most of the other elements are driven simply by population. Thus, since the formula returns to each poor province a share of revenue much larger than the share of national income generated by it (for example, though Limpopo generates only some 3% of national income, it receives some 14% of the shared revenue), this process of allocation is redistributive even though it does not have a strong, explicit poverty component. Furthermore, there have been special allocations outside the formula, for example for school construction and improvement.
It is largely the application of this approach that has been responsible for the improvement in inter-provincial variation in per learner expenditure. But this in a sense begs the question of what politico-economic factors have allowed the application of this formula. A detailed explanation would take us too far afield. However, elements of the explanation would be: a) a national government with a strong majority and mandate at national level to carry out redistribution, b) a modern approach to crafting fiscal formulae that are clear, simple, transparent, and well-studied to avoid perverse incentives. In particular, it could be argued that focusing on shares rather than absolute amounts increases transparency and reduces debates, though this focus on shares, ignoring, as it does, issues of “adequacy,” has been the target of some criticism.
As noted, intra-provincial equity has also improved. Clearly this cannot have been driven by the inter-provincial allocations, although the improvement in allocations to the poor provinces has permitted poorer provinces to improve local distribution by leveling up, rather than leveling to the median or mean. Instead, national government has issued policies that regulate intra-provincial resource distribution, thus issuing provinces with a mandate that forces them to redistribute internally out of a fixed bottom line, but does not result in an unfunded mandate affecting total expenditure on schooling.17
The history of these policies is of interest. For example, early in the transition, national policy mandated learner-educator ratios for schools in the country, as a matter of national policy and standards. The application of these ratios led to budgetary problems, however, (or perhaps was a convenient excuse) since the budgetary process and the standard-setting process were fairly divorced from each other. Some provinces were driven to, or had the excuse to, employ more teachers than they could afford. Accusations that the national level was imposing unfunded mandates on the provinces followed. The national government then issued purely distributional mandates, stating that each province should calculate the number of teachers it could afford, but then mandating that these should be distributed to schools according to an enrollment-driven formula. At the primary level the formula is very strongly enrollment-driven. This has resulted in a speedier process of equalization at the primary level. At the secondary level, the formula makes allowances for specialized subjects. To the degree that some schools offer more specialized subjects than others, it is natural that total learners per educator allocations should then be unequal. If these differences were driven by curricular policy, and curricular options were distributed fairly and rationally, this would not be a problem. But the reality is that the offering of specialized subjects is at least partially driven by historical privilege. Thus, there has been some debate about these issues. Furthermore, the allocation of teachers has been driven by enrollment, without any weighting towards poverty. Starting in 2003, national policy has declared that poverty weights are to be taken into consideration in intra-provincial allocations of teaching posts (Department of Education, 2002). This should cause some pro-poor allocation of teacher resources.
The process followed with non-personnel allocations has been similar, yet has its own interesting peculiarities. The National Norms and Standards for School Funding allocate funding for non-capital, non-personnel expenditure such as books, stationery, utilities, etc (Department of Education, 1998). There are two key differences between these norms and the personnel norms. First, the non-personnel norms started out simply mandating distribution within the province, not absolute levels of spending, thus avoiding the possibility of provincial accusations that the national level was creating unfunded mandates. Second, the norms were pro-poor from the beginning. In fact, they are stated in terms of incidence of spending, mandating that, for example, 65% of the spending has to target the poorest 40% of the learners. However, these norms did not start being applied until 2000. Furthermore, the norms are complex, since they also try to implement certain aspects of school-based financial management that are consistent with the South African Schools Act (Republic of South Africa, 1996a). Thus, implementation has been relatively slow. As a consequence, there has been little time for their impact to be felt.