The most powerful idea in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Bill, 2008 cleared by the Lok Sabha on August 5, and awaiting President Pratibha Patil’s assent, is reservation of 25 percent seats in private unaided schools across the country for the children of economically weaker and socially disadvantaged groups. Once the Bill becomes law, an ever-growing number of poor children will be able to enter a neighbourhood private school with the government paying for their education. This is essentially the school voucher scheme even though the government does not use this terminology in the legislation. Yet in effect the 25 percent reservation in the RTE Bill has created a national school voucher programme. In time it could become the world’s largest school vouchers programme!
A school voucher is basically a certificate which enables socio-economically disadvantaged students admission into private schools they couldn’t otherwise afford. This empowerment of poor households improves equality of access, and will also generate competition between government and private schools for the patronage of poor students. Without the voucher, children of the poor can only attend free govern-ment schools. Now some of them will be enabled to access English medium private schools. This increased choice for children from poor back-grounds will force government schools not to take poor stud-ents for granted, and to actively compete for their patronage. Thus school vouchers empower socio-economically disadvantaged children, enhance their access to quality schools, increase choice and intensity of competition.
How many government-sponsored students will opt for private schools in the first year of the programme under the RTE Bill, possibly in April 2010? Of the estimated 10 million students in class I in government schools countrywide, about 2.5 million children will receive vouchers to attend class I in private schools in the first year of the programme. Each year another 2.5 million children will be added as the first batch moves to class II. By class XII, there could be 30 million children attending private schools with government support.
By finally pushing the much-delayed RTE Bill through Parliament, the UPA-2 government has launched one of the boldest education schemes in the world. But it will be an equally great challenge to implement this legislation effectively. Private school promoters/managements are likely to challenge the 25 percent reservation provision in the courts. If that fails, they will challenge whatever amount the government proposes to pay them for education of state sponsored children. Moreover, parents of such students admitted into private schools will experience cultural, social and economic discomfiture. Also a large number of poor children will compete for the coveted seats in private schools, and there will be tremendous pressure on local governments to manage their admission transparently and without corruption. There are many such issues to consider, plan for and tackle effectively, to make a success of the national school voucher scheme included in the RTE Bill.
For instance, while on the one hand the RTE Bill facilitates the access of poor children into private schools, on the other the Bill stipulates infrastructure requirements (including a playground) which will make most budget private schools illegal. Typically, budget private schools charge fees in the range of Rs.50-300 per month and most of them cater to the education needs of children of low income cycle rickshaw peddlars, vendors and daily-wage labourers who are increasingly fleeing free government schools to enrol their children in private budget schools offering English medium/language education.
Budget schools tend to be sited in neighbourhoods where the poor reside — slums, shanty towns and peripheries of urban India. Numerous studies indicate that budget private schools even with poor infrastructure and low-paid teachers, record better learning outcomes than most government schools. The stringent infrastructure requirements of playground and library mandated by the Bill, while ideally desirable, will force closure of most budget schools, thus reducing the little choice that poor parents have for English medium education. It will hit poor children unable to qualify for the reserved quota in private schools particularly hard.
The stringent infrastructure provisions mandated by the RTE Bill need review. If all government schools in every neighbourhood become ideally provided in three years as stipulated in the Bill, fee-charging budget schools will be forced to close down anyway by the force of economics. Therefore there’s no immediate need to force their closure by law.
Certainly, the imminent enactment of the RTE Bill which enables the 86th Amendment of the Constitution of India, approved by Parliament in 2002, shows the commitment of the Congress-led UPA-2 government to universalisation of elementary education. But it is just a starting point. A lot of hard work remains to be done to deliver quality education to all of India’s children. The unintended national school vouchers programme is potentially the best new idea in the Bill. But it needs to be implemented wholeheartedly with proper planning.
(Dr. Parth Shah is president, Centre for Civil Society, Delhi)