Accidental world record in school choice?

For most Indian politicians — and socialists — the word ‘school voucher’ is a red rag. They think education must be delivered by government schools, not private schools. So, the Right to Education (RTE) Act has no provision for school vouchers, which would empower parents to choose any private or public school for their children, and get reimbursement of school expenses from the government. Yet, school choice may indeed emerge on a record-breaking scale as an accidental by-product of the new law.

The Education Act provides for free and compulsory education for all children in the age group 6-14. But government teachers cannot be disciplined or fired, so teacher absenteeism in government schools is rampant. In one survey by a Harvard economist, a quarter of government teachers were absent and another quarter were present but not teaching. The new law does nothing to improve teacher accountability. Teacher unions are powerful, so politicians dare not discipline errant teachers.

Currently, millions of children complete school without being able to read simple paragraphs or do basic maths. Yet, the RTE Act is concerned wholly with educational inputs, not outcomes. It provides a right to schooling, but not to education.

Children from richer families perform better because they get private tuition in the evening, sometimes from the very teacher who skipped school in the morning. The new law prohibits government teachers from giving private tuition, supposedly to induce them to take teaching in school more seriously. Alas, teachers will break this rule with impunity, as they have all previous ones.

The law mandates quality standards and official certification for all private schools, but none for government schools. Now, government teachers have the appropriate degrees, while many private school teachers don’t. Yet, in the absence of motivation or accountability, teaching in government schools is so pathetic that many poor parents in urban slums send their kids to fee-charging private schools, warts and all, rather than free government schools.

Often these private slum schools are of indifferent quality, but poor people find government schools worse. Many such private schools are in danger of being closed down by the rigorous certification norms of the new law. But they will almost certainly survive by bribing government inspectors, who have no more accountability than the teachers.

The new law says all private schools must reserve 25% of their seats from first grade onward for neighbourhood children from ‘‘socially and educationally disadvantaged classes’’ — lower Hindu castes and poor people, who constitute well over half the population. For these children from these disadvantaged classes, the government will reimburse private schools for actual cost of education, or pay the cost per student in government schools, whichever is less.

This will not be a classical voucher system, in which the government funds parents to send children to schools of their choice. Socialist politicians see the 25% reservation as a way of hitting elite schools rather than of empowering students through school choice. Yet, re-imbursement of private school fees is a sort of voucher, and will provide a sort of school choice to a big chunk of the population living within walking distance of private schools.

Private schools in slums and other low-income localities have low fees, and will get full reimbursement from the government. But elite private schools will find the system a huge tax: the voucher will not cover their actual costs. They are certain to move the courts. So, the 25% reservation may be stuck in legal wrangles for years. Yet, when the issue is resolved, its impact will be large.

India has an estimated 10 million students in first grade in private schools. Of these, 25% or 2.5 million should get government vouchers to attend first grade. Each year another 2.5 million children will be added as the first batch moves to second grade. By 12th grade, there will be 30 million children attending private schools with government reimbursement of fees. The actual number could be even higher. Most state governments are in financial straits and will find it cheaper to depend on private schools than create new government schools to provide the extra education for kids not yet in school.

State governments will suffer no penalty if they fail to provide schooling for all kids, and so many will leave their task incomplete. Besides, the new system will be beset by corruption, exclusions, and bogus muster rolls. Many kids will not be covered by the 25% quota, and others may find there are no private schools within walking distance. Despite all this, the new Indian scheme could become, without explicitly saying so, the biggest school choice programme in the world.

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