Circumvention of rules, sheer disregard, or not following the law because you don’t agree with it: Which one of these qualities would you like your child to possess? Don’t answer that. No law stipulates that you answer that. Note: We must do nothing unless a law tells us to. That’s what many schools in Chandigarh believe, and they’re easy to blame for it.
These schools are accused of possessing any or all of the above-stated qualities. And your children probably study there already. It is now up to the kids to imbibe the virtues that the school demonstrates year after year. For instance, 19 private schools got show-cause notices two years ago for not admitting entry-level students under the land allotment scheme, but many continue to flout the norms. It’s no surprise that while journalists, such as my colleague Ifrah Mufti, continue to underline this, the UT estate office and education department have only postponed the matter.
Under the scheme, the administration gave land at “concessional” rates to schools with the condition that they fill 15% seats on “nominal” fee for the poor. After the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2005, the law stipulates admission of 25% students from economically weaker sections at the entry level, for which the government reimburses schools at rates that were recently revised to Rs 1,300 per month per child. The administration argued in the past that since 15% were already covered under the “nominal” fee norm, no reimbursement is to be paid to schools for that bracket. Schools have to admit 10% more to meet the 25% stipulation, and will get reimbursement only for those 10%.
School authorities have not only disputed the definition of concessional and nominal under the land scheme, but have even argued that the “per-child cost to an ‘elite’ school is, say, between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 (per month)”, much higher than what is reimbursed to them under the RTE Act. They go to the extent of seeking repeal of the RTE, though there is no dearth of alibis. The RTE’s poor quota does not apply to minority institutions, so the schools have been tagging themselves as such over the past few years.
The administration has been forming committees and carrying out deliberations and inspections to work something out of this mess. But such is the urgency that this column has flagged this issue twice before over the past four years. One of those times, a functionary of the Independent Schools Association of Chandigarh responded with a counter-article that reasoned: “The role of private schools is to provide excellence in education, not universal education. Are restaurants, hotels, factories making cloth etc obliged to part with 25% of their production for free? Do the thousands of people living in their own houses set aside 25% of their homes to accommodate EWS families?”
It added that the State had made laws to “dump its responsibility into the laps of private schools” and that “minority schools” were only seeking “guarantees and protections provided by the Constitution”.
The argument carries weight, hence the stalemate. But who is responsible for it? Don’t answer that either. No law stipulates you to do that. Let me propound a simple theory instead. No stalemate should continue if there is indeed rule of law. And the much-vilified State is its custodian. The UT administration has been unable to address any of the concerns of the schools for years now. If it has tried to, and the schools have behaved like stubborn bullies, why has the education department not been able to take action beyond sending notices?
Is it because the officers’ kids go to the same schools? Don’t answer that either. Here’s what we need to know: Seats for the poor in the UT’s private schools are coming down — from around 1,200 four years ago to 700 last year. As far back as November of 2013, I wrote rather sweepingly, “It will get worse, and the poor will then systemically be squeezed out, reduced to the margins.” That’s turning out to be true, hence I repeat. A school head had then told me that “with minority status, it’s now up to my will and conscience” whether to admit poor students or not.
But, should matters such as universal education as guaranteed by the law be left to will and conscience? Answer that.