State of the blackboard

Indian Express, 13 January 2008

In sixty years of post-independence India, we have learned that the government is not a competent provider of education. In the last 20 years, a diverse array of private providers has sprung up, despite a hostile policy framework. It is not the rich who send their children to the bulk of these schools, the quality of a large number of which is highly suspect. Innumerable lower middle class and poor parents across rural and urban India, having lost hope at the lack of teachers and teaching in government schools, send their children to these private schools in the belief that the child would learn a little reading, writing, arithmetic and English to enable him to get better jobs and get ahead with life.

The draft Right to Education Bill of 2008 has a little understood provision: it proposes to impose an effective 33% tax on the children going to private schools. This bill would force all private schools to take in a quarter of their students at the instruction of government - but without reimbursing their full costs. Fee paying students who constitute 75 percent of the children in the school in private schools would be required to pay for these non-paying 25 percent. This is a dubious idea. The government should reimburse full costs of these students through vouchers and scholarships, or else it will be a blow to the only ray of hope on improving education and providing opportunities for children to get out of the trap of illiteracy and poverty.

All across India, government resources including land, building, salaries of teachers, books and other materials are put into government schools. Educational services are provided almost free. Yet, all over India, parents (including completely illiterate parents), looking at the teaching provided by these schools, vote with their feet: they spurn these freebies and go to private schools paying hard earned cash. The children might enrol at a government school to grab a free lunch, but their actual schooling often happens at a private school. While there is no hard data on this, roughly 65% of children in urban India and 25% of children in rural India are now rejecting government efforts at producing educational services. This reflects the failure of government as a producer of schooling.

There was a time when `private education' conjured images of upper class schools like Delhi Public School or Modern School. But these schools now account for a tiny part of India's private schools. The vast majority of private schools in India are humble affairs involving a few teachers and, in the villages, often no school building. The typical fees charged by these schools range from Rs.50 to Rs.100 per month. The facilities of these schools are extremely feeble. In terms of the physical resources available, government schools are vastly superior.

Why do parents send their children to such schools at a higher fee? There are several factors at work. First, teachers at private schools are more likely to teach. If the teacher is missing, parents are likely to vote with their feet and shift to another private school. This power in the hands of the parent effectively provides monitoring. In public schools, teachers are civil servants and have little incentive to teach. Further, private schools have responded faster and better to the need to teach English while in most states public schools are either ignoring this or are sluggish in responding. Third, in some of the most backward regions of India, Muslim and scheduled caste children go to private schools because they are likely to be mistreated at government schools. While the quality of education in these private schools have been reported to be quite poor, the fact that parents choose to send their children there - while paying monthly fees for it and while government schools are free - suggests superior outcomes.

What is a reasonable policy framework that a government can adopt? The right strategy for the government if it wants private schools to take in poor children is to measure the full unit cost of education delivered through the public system. This includes current and capital costs including land, building, books, materials etc. What the bill proposes is to pay a small amount that would have been the cost in a public school but not the full cost to the private school or even the full cost including all the free capital goods of a government school. This money should then be made available to the school chosen by the parent - regardless of whether it is public or private. The parent - and not the education ministry - should control which is the most appropriate school for the child.

Since providing vouchers is not the framework, the Right to Education Bill of 2008 has a provision that government will be able to force private schools to take in 25% of students for free. Effectively the remaining 75% of paying students have to bear the full cost of the school. This is a 33% tax charged by the government on parents who dare to send their children to private schools. The support for this idea is based on conjuring up an image of rich children attending private schools and thus having the ability to pay the additional fee. But the reality of private schools in India today is one of poor parents struggling to send their children to these schools to learn a few words of English to make them more acceptable in the labour market. By raising the fee for them, it will reduce the chances of getting that little extra that will allow a boy to become a driver rather than an illiterate unskilled labourer. This is an unfair and iniquitous move. Given the level of corruption in India, we cannot count on poor people getting access to those 25% free seats controlled by the government.

The right thing to do in India is to undertake fundamental reform, shifting resources away from the education bureaucracy which has a long track record of failure. This requires fresh thinking. If the parliament still does wish to impose a 25 percent component of children who will not pay the fee, it should pay the full fee drawing on the existing budgets for education.

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