Alok Ray

Rough edges in RTE law

ALOK RAY | Updated on November 15, 2017

Norms laid down by the Right to Education Act can drive many private schools out of existence.

The Right to Education Act overburdens fee-paying students, without really helping the poorer ones.

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of 25 per cent reservation of seats for underprivileged children in private schools (except for unaided minority schools).

Since then, the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which was passed nearly two years ago, has once become a subject of discussion. The actual implementation of the Act has, however, been left to the States.

In the current discussions, the media focus has primarily been on the implications of the 25 per cent reservation clause. Some feel that the government, instead of improving its own schools (a difficult task) where the vast majority of poor students, specially in rural areas, are enrolled, is palming off its responsibility of providing quality education to all to the private sector (the easier option).

But, even if the 25 per cent rule is enforced, it can absorb only a small percentage of students from government schools. Hence, without improving the quality of education in government schools, the goal of universal access to quality education will remain a pipedream.

Double taxation

Then, there are a lot of issues concerning the implementation of 25 per cent reservation. First, the government will reimburse the private schools for the 25 per cent reserved students.

Fees for the 75 per cent of students will have to go up significantly to finance this ‘cross subsidisation'.

Incidentally, the Union Human Resources Development Minister, Mr Kapil Sibal, in an interview, said, in a manner befitting a lawyer, that the schools will find “ways and means” to absorb the cost and avoid raising fees for the 75 per cent students. This is wishful thinking.

This is akin to double taxation of parents who, as income tax payers, pay the education cess (presumably to finance the goal of universal education) and now higher school fees to subsidise the 25 per cent reserved seats. Some of these fee-paying parents are not rich. They would have liked to send their children to less expensive government schools, had they not been so bad.

Second, the issue of integration of students from different social backgrounds and academic preparedness. Coming from low-income households with uneducated parents (who cannot help them to do home work) and unable to pay for private tutors, underprivileged children will be at a distinct disadvantage.

They would need remedial classes and hand-holding by motivated teachers. Otherwise, the progress of the more advanced students in the class would be held back and the laggard students will also be de-motivated. The social integration of students from different backgrounds is a problem even among more mature students in IITs and IIMs.

Defining ‘disadvantaged'

Third, how to select the ‘disadvantaged' to fill up the 25 per cent quota? Different States follow different methods to allocate these seats based on categories such as orphans, HIV-affected, SC, ST, minorities and other backward classes.

The apprehension is that unless the selection process is objective and transparent, it may degenerate into discretionary quota to be used by the local politicians and officials to select their preferred candidates against monetary or other favours.

Fourth, what happens after class VIII (age 14) after which the private school has no obligation to keep the quota student? If the student is not bright enough to enhance the reputation of the school at the school-leaving Board exam, the management will try to get rid of him/her. This may lead to enormous frustration and trauma.

Mr Sibal, when confronted with this question in a TV interview, had no clear answer, except to say that the current state of government finances does not allow financing the entitlement beyond class VIII, and hoped for the scheme to be extended to the school-leaving stage in the future.

Board exam concerns

Another set of issues are being raised regarding the role of unrecognised private schools. These would need to be closed down if the infrastructural and other specifications for recognition of schools under the RTE Act are strictly enforced.

For example, in Delhi, the RTE rules specify that the school must have a playground, pay teachers a minimum salary of Rs 23,000 per month and primary teachers must have a two-year education diploma. This implies that many of the current teachers will lose their jobs and the schools would be derecognised and closed.

A recent study of schools in Patna, Bihar, (titled The Private School Revolution in Bihar) shows that 78 per cent of the schools in Patna are private unaided, 65 per cent of the city's children study there, and 95 per cent of such schools are unrecognised.

Many of these schools are low-cost in nature (about 70 per cent charge less than Rs 300 per month as fees, some as low as Rs 20 per month). The educational qualifications and pay of teachers are much below those specified under the RTE Act. Hence, these schools will either close down, or will continue illegally.

Parents send their children to such schools, even though students from these schools cannot sit for Board exams. Generally, teacher attendance, the quality of infrastructure and learning outcomes are better compared with many government schools.

About a third of the students go for ‘double enrolment' (that is enrolled in a recognised government school, too) to get around the problem of not being able to sit for Board exam from an unrecognised private school.

Thus, many parents prefer unrecognised private schools over recognised government schools, even when both are available locally.

Feasible solutions

The study estimates that it would cost Patna city around Rs 70 crore each year, if all students were to be shifted from such unrecognised private unaided schools to government schools. It would be several hundred crores for the entire state of Bihar. So, the practical solution is to recognise such schools on the basis of a minimum feasible set of infrastructure and learning outcomes.

In other words, it should be left to the States to work out feasible solutions to the problem of students in unrecognised private schools.

The existing institutions can be capitalised till a better alternative can be worked out — financially and administratively — to take care of all these students. Some system of grading of such schools can be worked out.

The quality of government schools can be improved by following some kind of PPP model, if not full-scale privatisation.

Otherwise, the strict implementation of RTE norms across all States and schools will deprive poor students of access to education, even if flawed in many respects, under the existing set-up.

(The author is a former Professor of Economics at IIM, Calcutta.)

Published on May 04, 2012

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