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Monday, January 25, 2010

Trick Or Teach?

Here is an incontrovertible fact: the majority of children between the ages of eight and 14, rich or poor, attend private schools. Even poor families shun government schools and willingly pay fees to enrol their children in private schools. To cater to this demand, private schools are flourishing, not just in cities and small towns but in villages as well. These schools have been established as commercial ventures. They are of two kinds: recognised and unrecognised by the government. To obtain recognition, private schools have to fulfil impossible criteria including infrastructural demands and have to pay teachers according to the government-appointed Pay Commission's recommendations. Thus, teachers must be paid upward of Rs 20,000 a month as entrants and the scale rises with experience.

Of course, schoolteachers should be paid well and the new scales are welcome. These salary standards, however, are daunting for private schools except elite institutions securing funds from trusts and alumni. In the end, most private schools are commercial ventures that need not just to balance their books but also make a profit. There is a limit on the fees they can charge. And yes, in order to sustain themselves, they must have money to pay their bills and provide a return to investors. Most people are aghast that schools can be run as commerce. Actually, all schools are: the recognised ones are eligible for government grants; the elite ones depend on trust funding; government schools eat up taxpayers' money. Any which way, schools are an enterprise and cannot indefinitely sustain themselves without government funding, alumni benefaction or fees.

Parents shun government schools because these don't function. Government schoolteachers are political factotums who must perform election duty and schools are closed because they are venues for the vote. Politics always get the right of way. In my neighbourhood, i have to cast my vote in the local government school that is truly a beautiful setting, with huge grounds and trees. But when I go into the classrooms where the voting booths are, I find the rubble of broken desks, splintered blackboards and a general aura of decay. One election agent told me very few teachers actually attend class; they mostly have a side business as private tutors. It makes me wonder: what are the children in these schools learning?

The government school system is broken beyond repair and everybody knows that, including the poor. Yet the new Right to Education (RTE) Act turns a blind eye and instead seeks to impose impossible burdens on private schools, not just elite institutions but others catering to the common man. Recognised or not, these schools are filling the gap that government apathy and ineptitude has created.

Recently I attended a conference in which participants debated the newly-enacted RTE Bill. The focus of the discussion was Section 12 of the legislation, which mandates: "For the purposes of this Act, a school, specified in sub-clause (iii) [special schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya, Sainik School, Navodaya Vidyalaya, etc] and (iv) [private unaided] of clause (n) of section 2 shall admit in class I, to the extent of at least twenty-five per cent of the strength of that class, children belonging to (the) weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood and provide free and compulsory elementary education till its completion.."

Also, "the school specified in sub-clause (iv) [private unaided] of clause (n) of section 2 providing free and compulsory elementary education as specified... 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 (sic)..."

Talk about obfuscation. Who is to decide who this "weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood" is? And what is "the extent of per-child-expenditure by the State"? The answer to the first question is: state-level bureaucrats and local politicians will decide who qualifies. It sets up one more opportunity for milking the poor and holding private schools to ransom. In addition, the government's "per-child-expenditure" is about Rs 3,000 a year, based on an extrapolation from figures provided by the standing committee on human resources development. That's Rs 250 a month! Under the NREGA, the government pays Rs 100 a day for the poorest of the poor to dig ditches. Even that is low. In Goa, the mandated rate for manual labour is Rs 200 a day.

The RTE Act is poorly framed. It is currently being translated into policy under the ministrations of half a dozen bureaucrats. Like all well-meaning legislation, it will only create more problems. Government schools will remain non-functional. Private schools will have to face, in addition to highfalutin government influence over admission policies, the spectre of dealing with low-level bureaucrats and local politicians (read thugs).

Which leads to a crucial question: who says only the government can provide welfare services? Private schools are doing what the government is unable to do. Instead of helping them discharge the function, the new RTE Act creates problems. Is it ineptitude or another scheme to extract rent? Confusion has wrought its masterpiece.

This article appeared in The Times of India, Goa, December 29, 2009.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010