I was chatting with a group of government schoolteachers in Jaipur recently about teacher absenteeism and accountability, the two big problems facing government schools in India today. Is it possible to penalise errant behaviour or fire such teachers? The response was: Not really.
The group explained that government schoolteachers were too powerful in state-level politics for politicians to undertake serious disciplinary policies. One shouldn’t underestimate the teachers’ influence in the making and unmaking of a politician’s future. The political power of government schoolteachers has been extensively documented by Geeta Kingdon and Mohammad Muzammil in their study of teacher politics in Uttar Pradesh. Teacher unions in the state have, over the decades, ensured that attempts at teacher accountability are systematically defeated.
So what makes teachers so powerful politically? First, they are present in every village and are among the more educated. This allows them to undertake a range of informal campaigning activities. Second, they are the largest employee base of the government. If every teacher influences the voting outcome of a handful of family and friends, it adds up to a sizeable number for a constituency. Consider the state legislative constituency Baran in Rajasthan. In the 2003 state elections, the margin for victory was 7,518 votes. Baran has around 1,500 schoolteachers. If every teacher could influence even ten votes, that would be almost double the margin required for victory.
Finally, government schoolteachers man polling stations, and at least two of the four polling officers are schoolteachers. It is impossible to make elections completely tamper-proof given high illiteracy. For instance, the Officer on Special Duty to a former chief minister of MP explained how electronic voting machines could be misused: “People get confused, so they ask the adhikari how to operate it. And so s/he demonstrates…but that is it, the real vote has been cast. You can go on pressing, but the vote has been cast.”
It’s difficult to say whether teachers can actually change the fortunes of a politician, but they can certainly create a credible threat. Frequently, credible threats are enough, and can dissuade politicians from taking strict measures for teacher accountability.
If government schools are unlikely to be able to remediate their errant teachers, then are private schools a better option? Before we proceed with that thought, let us note a few things. First, while some government schoolteachers are errant, many are not. In fact, several work despite poor facilities and harassment by government officials, politicians and middlemen. Second, private school teachers also have powerful unions. Finally, the politics that permeates government school systems will likely permeate private school systems too, especially if they acquire scale.
Teacher accountability in schools is a complex issue in any thriving democracy, since teachers are a large, well-organised force and are politically powerful. Kingdon and Muzammil suggest teachers’ political powers be trimmed by amending the constitutional provision guaranteeing representation to teachers in the Legislative Council, and preventing aided secondary schoolteachers from contesting elections to the lower house of the legislature. We may also want to reduce the number of teachers in polling booths, but it’s unclear whether there are enough government employees to staff these posts.
At the same time, let us remedy the teaching profession’s job-related features so that it does not dampen the enthusiasm of otherwise motivated teachers. At the very least, this means fair and transparent transfer rules, and easy access to funds due to teachers, but unavailable without bribing clerks and middlemen. In summary, improving government schools requires us to focus not just on what is happening inside schools and classrooms, but also on what is happening outside.
Tara Béteille is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice, Stanford University
The views expressed by the author are personal.