Teaching India

| Updated on March 09, 2018

The RTE Act, while extending the PPP model to education, should not turn into a regulatory quagmire.

The Supreme Court has quite rightly upheld the legal validity of the Right to Education (RTE) law. There is nothing per se revolutionary in the Government wanting to enforce a quota of mandatory admission for poor children in private schools. It is an extension of the principle of the State taking over private property for public good after paying due compensation. The ownership of any asset carries with it a bundle of rights. The right of physical possession to the exclusion of others is one such. The right to use the asset to the exclusion of others is another such right. In asking these schools to admit a percentage of poor students as in the instant case, the State is demanding that it be allowed to partially use the educational facilities owned by a private entity.

India has embraced a liberal form of capitalism as a guiding principle in policy formulation. Capitalism rewards merit, ability and achievement. But that cannot happen without equality of opportunity for all individuals to prove their merit. That process should start at schools, which is the first station where a person's true potential, or lack of it, can be revealed and nurtured for being appropriately rewarded later in the marketplace. It is a fact that government schools are in a pitiable shape across the country, unlike many private schools having superior infrastructure and monitoring standards for both students and teachers. Enabling the poor to access the latter schools — which is what mandating them to provide 25 per cent of their seats free to such students seeks to do — is one way of establishing the equality of opportunity principle in an increasingly competitive and aspirational society. The issue is how to do it in a pragmatic manner that does not drive away private investment in education. Nor can the government be absolved from not doing enough about its own schools and trying to cover up by transferring the burden on to private schools.

The RTE, which has actually been in effect since April 2010, is flawed on many counts here. Under it, the government reimburses private unaided schools for reserving a quarter of their seats for the poor, “to the extent of per child expenditure incurred by the state”. The latter is equal to a state government's annual recurring expenditure on its schools, divided by the number of children enrolled in them. There is no harm in taking a liberal view of this expenditure to include, for instance, mid-day meals, so that private schools are not forced to charge excessive fees from the remaining 75 per cent students. The other big problem is identifying the poor. There is equal need to define “unaided' clearly, so it is not open to misuse.

The RTE, provided it does not degenerate into a regulatory quagmire, can ultimately be seen to extend the public-private-partnership (PPP) model to education. But this approach, while it has worked in national highways and airports, cannot be applied seamlessly to the provision of basic livelihood needs as opposed to purely economic goods. PPPs can help, but the primary responsibility to ensure every child has access to decent education lies with the government, and cannot be thrust upon the private sector beyond a point.

Published on April 15, 2012

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