Old Model RTE Bill, 2008

Author: Dr Parth J. Shah and Sabine Zander
Publication: Education World , 30 October 2008

India’s ‘Education for All’ movement can be traced back to the World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, where delegates from 155 countries and representatives of 150 organisations pledged to provide basic education for all by the year 2000. Yes, the Education for All objective was to have been achieved eight years ago!

Subsequently at the World Education Forum staged in Dakar (Senegal) in 2000, delegates reset the target date. The UN General Assembly in its Millennium Declaration of September 8, 2000 drafted a new Millennium Development Goal (MDG) resolution: “To ensure that, by the year 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education.”

Starting from its year of origin in 1990, EFA has been transformed into a 25-year project. Despite this, recent assessments of progress toward this MDG raise serious doubts about whether the 2015 deadline will be met.

India’s Parliament approved a constitutional amendment in 2002 to make elementary education a fundamental right with the aim of meeting the MDG target. Enacting the Right to Education Bill 2008, pending with the Union cabinet, is the next step. It is pertinent to note that the Bill was first drafted in 2003. This summer the Union ministry of human resource development presented a new version of the Bill.

The forthcoming winter session of Parliament sched-uled to begin on October 17, offers the last opportunity before the next general election to pass the RTE Bill. The additional outlay for its implementation over seven years from 2008-09 to 2014-15 is estimated at Rs.2.28 lakh crore (Rs.32,570 crore per year). In the first week of August the cabinet referred the Bill to an empowered group of ministers (GoM). The GoM’s recommendations have to be debated by the cabinet before the Bill is presented to Parliament.

Is the RTE Bill 2008 better than its previous versions? In some respects it is a better Bill, as in many areas changes made are on the lines of what CCS (Centre for Civil Society, Delhi) has outlined.

Thus there is no prison penalty for parents whose children fail to enroll in schools, nor are teachers converted into school cadre and treated as indentured servants. The earlier Free and Compulsory Education Bill 2003 had proposed the creation of up to six different bureaucratic authorities like the Habitation-level Elementary Education Authority, Local Elementary Education Authority, District Elementary Education Authority, Metropolitan Elementary Education Authority, State Elementary Education Authority and Union Territory Elementary Education Authority to monitor the implementation of its provisions. These authorities don’t exist in the new Bill. However the supervisory and monitoring functions these authorities were supposed to perform are included in the current Bill. As to who will discharge these functions is not clear.

One of the most important provisions of the RTE Bill 2008 is a proposal to reserve 25 percent of seats in private schools for poor children. The draft Bill provides that government shall pay the private school the amount it currently spends per child in government and fully aided schools. This is an effective way to apply the idea of school vouchers and a move to introduce public-private partnerships in education.

While it’s commendable that the government of India is looking for new ways to tackle the country’s primary education deficit, it is doubtful that the Right to Education Bill 2008 is the initiative which will lead to the provision of quality primary education to the children of India. There’s an urgent need to look for creative and innovative approaches to fulfil the promise of quality education to the next generation. Both the finance ministry and Planning Commission have argued for greater private participation, including “for profit activity” in the education sector. The Bill is completely silent on these critical issues.

Moreover while there’s been a lot of discussion on outlays versus outcomes in civil society and within the government, the word ‘outcome’ or ‘outcomes’ does not appear in the Bill even once. Neither do the terms ‘learning achievement’, ‘incentive/s’, ‘choice’, ‘competition’, or ‘public-private partnership’. Though some of these ideas/phrases are buzzwords with the current government, there is no place for them in the Bill.

Yet the main drawback of the RTE Bill is that it’s built on the old model of state control, management and delivery of education services. It would be more appropriate to name it the School Building Expansion Bill or Keep Teacher Unions Happy Bill (even at the cost of the future of our children and the nation). It’s conclusive evidence that it’s time to retire the old guardians of our education system and bring in young blood and fresh thinking. And this must be done sooner than later because if legislation which takes education in the wrong direction is enacted into law, it will be difficult to implement future reforms.