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Now that the SC has upheld the 25 per cent clause, Centre and states must work on implementation.
Now that the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of reservation of 25 per cent of admissions at the entry-level in private unaided schools for disadvantaged sections, focus should shift to the implementation of this provision. The Right to Education Act stipulates that private unaided schools “shall be reimbursed expenditure so incurred by it to the extent of per child expenditure incurred by the state, or the actual amount charged from the child, whichever is less”. So if the state spends Rs 1,500 per child and a private unaided school charges Rs 2,000, the school would be reimbursed Rs 1,500 per child admitted under the reservation policy. However, to implement this clause effectively, we need to know precisely how much both state and private schools spend on a per child basis. Unsurprisingly, given the paucity of data, this information is difficult to find and hence has become a hotly contested issue.
Broadly, the Government of India (GoI) funds elementary education through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The average per child expenditure for the financial year 2011-12 can be calculated by combining SSA budget figures with enrolment data collected through the District Information System for Education. In 2011-12, GoI spent Rs 4,269 as its allocation per enrolled child. This number varies across states. For instance, Chhattisgarh spent Rs 7,037, while Gujarat spent Rs 3,049 and Meghalaya spent Rs 27,451. However, the GoI allocation barely touches the surface of total government spending on elementary education. State government allocations account for almost 70 per cent of the total education budget. When these allocations are taken into account, per child cost variations across states are even starker.
But state-level allocations do not offer an accurate picture of per child costs. Accountability Initiative’s calculations of per child costs (see table) at the district level point to significant variation in per child costs across districts. Thus, in thinking through the mechanism for arriving at per child costs for the purpose of reimbursements to private schools, the district rather than the state ought to be the unit of analysis.
However, calculating per child allocation and expenditure at district level is tricky, given the lack of budget documents at the district level and multiplicity of departments implementing various schemes for elementary education. Arriving at these numbers requires a great deal of creativity. Data in states that have computerised their treasuries, such as Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, are easier to ascertain. Here, the per child cost can be calculated by tracing transactions in the bank accounts of the Drawing and Disbursing Officers at the district level. But in states where this information is not collated, estimates had to be made based on the proportion of schools, teachers and students in a given district compared to those in a state.
Still, if the RTE provision is to be implemented seriously, this must be given priority. There should be clarity about which items are to be included while calculating per child cost — recurring costs or both recurring and capital costs, for example, and how the per child cost is to be adjusted from year to year. The suggestion of having a uniform rule for the entire country, decided by the Centre in consultation with state governments, is worth considering. All the data required to perform cost calculations should be made public, so that anybody can understand and replicate them.
There is even more ignorance about the other side of the coin — private unaided schools. With the exception of the elite schools that have dominated the public debate, relatively little is known about the day-to-day functioning of private unaided schools, and how much these schools charge per child. In fact, most people do not know that private schools in much of India spend far less per child than government schools. A recent study by India Institute shows that 69 per cent of private unaided schools in Patna charge less than Rs 300 per month, lower than Bihar government’s per child cost of Rs 4,705. But private school costs are no longer static. RTE regulations with regard to teacher wages and infrastructure hold implications for private school costs, which makes estimating the financial implications of the reservation clause difficult.
It will help if state education departments display a list of all private unaided schools that admit students under the 25 per cent category with details, including the number of students admitted, fees charged and amount reimbursed, on their websites. These schools should be required to submit a statement indicating their costs under different heads and the fees charged at least annually. This should also be made publicly available. The government should come up with a standardised format for such a statement. This will facilitate public scrutiny of expenditure undertaken by private schools, and meaningful comparisons across private schools.
In analysing the Supreme Court judgment upholding the Right to Education (RTE) Act, television channels have focused too much on the 25% reservation of seats in private schools - including famous elite schools - for low-income children.
This minor social engineering has produced some ridiculous protests from the elite. Yet, equally ridiculous is the claim that this will significantly help the poor. Of India's hundreds of millions of schoolchildren, only a few thousand poor will enter the elite havens. The others will remain at the mercy of third-rate government schools that provide no worthwhile education.
Worse, the Act poses a huge threat to the poor because it mandates the closing of all private unrecognised schools by 2013. If implemented, this will be the greatest educational disaster to befall India.
In desperation, the poor have increasingly switched their children from free government schools to fee-paying private ones. Only a tiny handful of private schools are elite schools. Most are unrecognised, charging low fees of 300 per month or less. They are cheap precisely because they lack the expensive infrastructure and qualified teachers mandated by government rules.
The Act obliges private schools to match government school salaries and amenities or close down. If implemented, school fees will rise 560% in low-cost schools and 173% in higher-cost schools in Patna, says a recent study by Rangaraju, Tooley and Dixon ( The Private School Revolution in Bihar).
The Act obliges the government to finance the 25% of reserved seats in private schools based on government teacher salaries. But government payments are typically much delayed, and require the greasing of palms. Even after receiving payment for 25% of students, private schools will have to raise fees enormously for the remaining 75%. This will hit the poor.
The educational establishment is embarrassed by the failure of government schools, and the mass switch to unrecognised schools. But the Patna study suggests that the rise of unrecognised schools is more a matter for celebration than embarrassment. Though illegal, they are providing parents with choice and education that were unavailable earlier.
The study of Patna is a microcosm of the issues affecting the whole country. It suggests that 65% of all Patna children are in private unaided schools. There is hardly a street without such a school. This is not because of the lack of government schools. The study looked for private schools within a radius of 1 km of different government schools. It found a minimum of nine private schools, and a maximum of 93!
Children in unrecognised schools cannot appear for official school-leaving exams. Yet, the study showed that the majority of parents knew this and did not care. One reason was double enrolment: kids were enrolled in government schools but actually studying in private unaided schools. This was illegal, but enabled them to appear for exams, after greasing some palms. Once again, government failure was partly assuaged by a nominally illegal, but socially sanctioned market solution.
Many educationists expostulate that the bulk of these private schools lack qualified teachers, playgrounds and other infrastructure, and amount to exploitation of the poor. Many claim to be English-medium schools but have teachers that can barely speak or teach English.
The Patna study found that low-cost schools on average paid teachers 1,447 per month. High-quality private schools paid as much as 11,094. Government school teachers get far more in several states. Yet, the lowly-paid, unqualified teachers in private schools in Patna have on average produced better results than government schools.
An Aser study of Ward 60 in Patna compared learning outcomes in government and private schools, and found that the former lagged in virtually all indicators. For instance, the proportion of Class II children who could read at least some words was 30.6% in government schools and 87.5% in private schools. The proportion of Class III children who could recognise numbers up to 100 was 53.9% in government schools and 97.2% in private schools.
These figures should be used with caution. They may not apply to other states and cities. Some private schools may be useless.
Yet, on the whole, parents switching their children to private schools know what they are doing. Educationists wanting to close substandard private schools do not.
A Right to Education may be a good idea, but the actual Act provides no such right at all. It has no penalties or sanctions whatsoever for state governments that fail to provide schooling. It has no penalties for government schools and teachers that do not teach. It has no objection to schools that produce only dropouts and functional illiterates. The Supreme Court judgment pays no attention to this.
Private schools are illegally providing some sort of education, which the RTE Act is incapable of doing legally. That is India's tragedy. It will not be solved by ordering 25% reservation for poor children in elite schools. And it certainly will not be solved by closing down unrecognised schools, or forcing them to match government teacher salaries and, hence, quintuple school fees.
I don't often suggest the flagrant violation of the law. But state governments should ignore the RTE Act's provision to close private schools that do not measure up to desirable but unrealistic standards. Rather, state governments should recognise the value of 'unrecognised' schools, and devise ways to gradually integrate these into the formal system. If this means violating the Act, so be it.