Making lemonade from lemons – The RTE edition
Live Mint, 02 May 2012
Education consultant Lawrence Uzzell had pointed out that school reformers throughout the world can be broadly grouped into two groups – neo-pluralists and neo-centralists. The neo-pluralists believe in allowing various pedagogies, teacher arrangements, profit- and non-profit governance models, and different social contexts for the children. The neo-centralists, on the other hand, push for the homogenizing of schooling in the name of socio-economic solidarity and prioritize the state’s preferences over that of the parents and the child. The neo-pluralists, who we have sympathy for, are not against prudential regulations or subsidies - indeed, many of them support scholarships or vouchers for the children from disadvantaged sections of society to study at private schools.
Unfortunately, the Right to Education (RTE) Act has been successfully pushed by the neo-centralists in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the National Advisory Council (NAC). The Supreme Court of India has upheld the law, declaring the reservation of 25% of admissions in private unaided schools for underprivileged classes and castes to be constitutional. In other words, RTE is here to stay, and economic liberals must, just like with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or the Food Security Bill, reform from within.
Yet, many think that most opposition to the RTE Act stems not from any philosophical or economic angle, but from an elitist bias because of which well-to-do parents do not want their children to study with children from poorer families. This could of course be true in many cases although some commentators have also written about the mixed psychological effects on poor children of growing up along children from much richer households. But the supporters who cite the Western common school systems as examples of social egalitarianism and integration should know that they are actually referring to governmental schools in the West, and hat in many countries like the United States, private schools are allowed to run without quotas.
Liberals do not oppose RTE based on prejudice; they oppose it primarily because of its focus on centralized statism. RTE is first and foremost against private property and free association. The question is should individuals in an ostensibly free country be allowed to select unaided schools for their children, even if based on apparent class prejudice? Should Rabindranath Tagore not have been allowed to start Patha Bhawan in 1901 with just five students? Should he really have been asked to have labs, playgrounds and the right socio-economic demographics in his new school?
Yet, the liberty argument against centralization does not cut ice with some, so let us consider more pragmatic arguments. Economist Bibek Debroy had succinctly summarized his opposition to RTE in The Indian Express. “58% of enrolment in urban India is in private schools and the figure is 32% in rural India...The RTE imposes high compliance costs on budget private schools and drives them out. It thus hinders, rather than furthers, the cause of school education”. Indeed, most schools in the country are not RTE-compliant as of now (simply in terms of infrastructure, not admission policies).
As Kartik Misra, a researcher at the Center of Civil Society (CCS), notes that in the three parts of Delhi state he studied, the fees at various low budget private school would have to increase from the current Rs. 295-370 per month to anywhere between Rs. 1040-1612 if all the RTE regulations were to be followed. Many such schools of course could not expand to get the requisite playgrounds etc, because there is simply no land around. Such budget private schools have been observed by James Tooley in Hyderabad and Delhi (as written in his book The Beautiful Tree) and by us in Rajasthan and Kolkata. Indeed, Tooley noted that Delhi’s unrecognized private schools had significantly smaller classes, higher average math raw scores, and lower per-pupil teacher cost than government schools! This is not a surprise to anyone who understands incentives - in private schools there is accountability, whenever the government comes in we just have sinecure jobs.
Most of the fee increases and “crowding out” of low-cost private schools would be because of a forced increase of teacher salaries, and to a lesser extent by newer infrastructure. This is a clear bid by the government teacher unions to prevent the bifurcation of the teacher union movement into government and private ones. Apparently, having a B. Ed. is no longer enough for a teacher in an officially recognized school to teach - which is another implicit admission of government-provided education’s failures as the state now tries to increasingly control the salaries, fees and admissions in private schools.
While the RTE would force the low-cost schools to either close shop or pay more bribes, the super-elite in the country is even more likely to defect abroad - starting with high school now, instead of university. But why should we then allow rich Indians to send their kids to Raffles, Andover or Harrow for schooling? Should the government not detain them at airports? Of course not, that would be wrong. Yet, within the country we must push for social engineering, say RTE proponents.
But why then does the RTE not apply equally to state-funded madrassas? It is sad to note that while the Supreme Court had exempted the unaided “minority” schools - religious and linguistic - from RTE while unfairly regulating the unaided non-minority ones, the Parliament has gone ahead one step and also exempted some of the aided minority schools (mostly in the religious category, it seems). That is, if state-enforced norms are good for one community, why not for the other – and if it is too homogenizing for one, then why not for the other? Clearly, where integration was perhaps most needed – the government has predictably blinked.
Yet, this is where the lemon starts potentially looking like a lemonade. The Rajya Sabha, when it partially exempted Muslim religious school from RTE, also exempted some “Vedic Schools” to not appear blatantly pseudo-secular. It is unclear to us at this point if, and to what extent, would this also include schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission and various Sangh schools like the Shishu Mandirs. Therefore, instead of attacking the conservative Muslims and their appeasers in the Congress party, the Hindu right would be better off exploiting this opening. Already, to take an example, Jain minority institutes have been useful for Hindus in some states to escape government over-regulation of education. A sustained legal and political movement should single-mindedly aim to de facto liberate many more private unaided schools by increasing their minority quotient in terms of religion, language or any other factor that would serve the purpose.
As American libertarian Grover Norquist writes in his book Leave Us Alone, “The (center-right) coalition also includes those Americans whose central concern is practicing their religion and raising their children in that same faith...This confuses the heck out of the establishment press that cannot understand how evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Mormons can all cheerfully be in the same political movement. Shouldn’t they be fighting each other? ...They don’t have to. They realize that if they are to practice their faith their way they need to stand politically with others of different faith who want the same freedom… Over the years the aggressively secular left has created a more ecumenical right” Another author Paul Weyrich noted that “This was the nexus between social conservatism and opposition to big government”.
The second lemon-to-lemonade possibility is within the reimbursements promised by the government for the 25 percent of reserved seats in private schools. If the refunds - which are to be linked to average per-student government costs - are higher than the school’s fees, we already have a de facto voucher program! This is what Swaminathan Aiyar had already noticed, but the problem was that for most elite private schools, this government transfer would still be a pittance. For the budget schools on the other, this could be a windfall - except that most of them are not recognized, and after RTE’s requirements of high salaries and full playgrounds, even fewer are likely to satisfy the regulatory requirements.
This is where Gujarat’s recent game-changer comes in, as documented by Parth Shah of the Centre for Civil Society. School recognition in that state will now be contingent on more sensible factors: Learning outcomes (absolute levels of student learning, and improvement compared to past performance) - 70 % weight; Inputs (including facilities, teacher qualifications) - 15% weight; Non-academic outcomes and parent feedback - 15% weight. Under this formula, most budget schools are likely to become recognized, and hence eligible for RTE’s “eminent domain” - but with a compensation very favorable to them. Look out for better educational results, more empty government schools (and better bang for the buck for taxpayers) if this remarkable model is replicated by other states.
Indeed, concentration on outlays and not outcomes has been the bane of most Indian public policy - the vast portion of government schooling expenditure in India has been on the salaries of the teachers and administration. Unions have been “the biggest barrier” to reform, according to Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at MIT. Therefore, today it is increasingly true what Pranab Bardhan had noted in a larger context that “the left, while talking about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat, has given us instead the dictatorship of the salariat’”. Government teachers, like most Indian public servants, have no incentive to perform because of job security and lack of performance pay.
Today when social entrepreneurship is the new buzzword, would not for-profit school be amongst the best examples of that? Indeed, profit would allow schools to legally scale up. As movies like Taare Zameen Par and Three Idiots have documented at a popular culture level – our education system need a huge infusion of innovation. Unfortunately, centralized statist systems are rarely innovative. Moreover as the Internet change our entire lives, our education system continues to be almost exactly the same as it was pre-Independence.
Poor parents also have voted with their small pockets and have said no to a “free” government option, because they know that private schools give a better education. We all agree that quality schooling should be available to one and all, then why only subsidize government-run schools? We should have choice and competition. We should fund students, not schools. Once we subsidize more private schools, albeit indirectly through students – even more new schools will be created. While primary school enrollment has increased, studies by Pratham and PISA show that quality still remains extremely dismal. Already, good work is being done by NGOs like Pratigya in Jharkhand - they follow the voucher model and support students to attend budget schools, instead of starting schools or donating to them. Similarly, dramatically more educational spending by Delhi is not fiscally possible, and repealing RTE is not politically feasible. Therefore, we must now push for as many exemptions as possible within the RTE, while getting more budget schools recognized for reimbursements.
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