On Thursday, April 12, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the provision in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act — better known as the Right to Education or RTE Act — that makes it compulsory for private schools (including schools that have received no cheap land, one-time subsidy or contribution to ongoing expenses from a government agency) to take in 25% pupils from poor-income backgrounds.
It was easy in the euphoria to see this as a game-changer in the struggle for egalitarianism. Some compared it to the busing revolution in the US of the 1960s, wherein children from different neighbourhoods and ethnic communities (largely white and black) were asked to take a bus to relatively distant schools in an attempt to create a genuinely desegregated classroom. Busing, as the episode came to be known, was a seminal juncture in the American civil rights movement.
So is this India’s busing moment? Before asking that, do consider the busing and desegregated classroom aspiration was built on a robust, functional framework of government-backed schools, or public schools as they are called in America. Children from one government school were being asked to go to another government school. Recognising education as a basic public good that the State was enjoined to provide and concluding that education was a fundamental right every child was entitled to, State and federal governments in the US had set up an enviable network of public schools.
As such, busing was not some diversionary tactic. It was an honest attempt to improve the multicultural indices and the cross-community interaction in classrooms across cities and states, in schools that were largely fungible.
This is the principal point of the RTE provision that has been lost. Eighty-five (90 in some states) per cent of Indian children who go to school go to a government or government-aided school. To use a random example, in Maharashtra, as per a government report of 2005, 90% of the state’s 67,885 primary schools were run by zila parishads and municipal bodies and charged no fees.
As such, even if 100% of seats in private and unaided (or even most private and aided) schools are reserved for poor children, it will be a drop in the ocean. The real crisis is in the government school system. Simply put our parents’ generation studied in these, but we (and those richer as well as poorer than us) would do our utmost to ensure our children don’t.
The RTE legislation has been drawn up by New Delhi-based do-gooders who mean well and subscribe to the universal aspiration that all children deserve to go to school (who doesn’t?) but have little idea of the nitty-gritty of RTE implementation.
Education is a state subject under the Constitution. In state after state, RTE implementation plans have been announced. Many of these are downright intrusive, aimed purely at curbing private-school autonomy. Why is this happening? There are several reasons.
Education bureaucracies in the states (as in the Centre) are not prioritising enhancing school supply. The mess in government schools is difficult to fix, even if so many of them have better properties than private schools and bigger budgets (spent on salaries and pensions) but have low scholastic standards and so are less appealing to parents.
It is easier to paint so-called elite private schools as ghettoes of the rich. Some of them may well be. Yet, as several people, including the MIT economist Abhijit Banerjee, have pointed out, the RTE hurts not so much rich private schools but small institutions in, say, urban slums. There have been studies as to the efficacy of such schools in cities as far apart as Hyderabad and Patna and of how poor parents prefer them (with their fees) to notionally-free government schools where teacher absenteeism is rampant.
Many of these small schools do not have the space or resources to meet the ambitious (and theoretically desirable) infrastructure standards imposed by RTE and can be forced to shut down. Asked about this HRD ministry sources say: “Of course we can’t shut these down. We will just extend the deadline under RTE.” Case-by-case assessment, discretion, inspector raj, rent… It is so much easier to give a sermon on fraternity and snuff out the rest of the debate.
There is one other implication of the April 12 judgement that should concern us. It distinguishes between minority-run unaided schools and other private unaided schools, upholding the constitutional right of the former to not admit poor students compulsorily. This will lead to a paradoxical situation where poor Muslim or Christian students, the most-deserving among the minorities surely, will be able to access RTE quotas in schools run by Hindus but not by their own community. Indeed, the vast, vast majority of students in minority schools could be fee-paying non-minorities. Does this make sense?
What is the way out? Strengthen public schools; there is no alternative. Hand over management of government schools to private trusts and free them from the tyranny of education departments. Finally, if education is an entitlement for every single child, forget caste and community exemptions and market distortions. Just make sure there are enough schools, and quality schools, for any child to be able to walk into. Does April 12 bring us closer to this ideal? Sadly, it does not.
(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator)
The views expressed by the author are personal