Why choice matters?

Monday, 3 March 2014
Parth J Shah
The Financial Express

Bringing the element of choice into education will make schools accountable to parents, and will lead to a more efficient schooling system, where poor performing schools are weeded out due to lack of patronage.
Held towards the end of January, the National School Choice Week saw a series of events and activities across the US held by parents, teachers, educationists and other individuals who are active supporters of choice in education. The public celebration of school choice was an attempt to bring to the fore the need for increased parental involvement in choosing schools for their children and the options that are available to them, something that is currently lacking in the Indian context.

What is school choice? It means that parents (and thereby students) have more choices in the number and variety of schooling options. It means not just having many private schools but schools catering to a spectrum of expectations the parents might have from the education system. In fact, students are the primary stakeholders in education—and as with any other service, it makes sense that the consumer is able to choose a service provider best suited to meet her needs and expectations.

In India, parental choice in education is limited, especially for our poorest citizens. Education is directly funded by the government and, as such, schools are accountable to the government and not the parents for their performance. Based on the yearly Annual Status of Education Report 2013 findings, performance of schools in terms of student learning outcomes has been steadily declining across both public and private schools, though the rate of decline in public schools is steeper.

Bringing the element of choice and competition into education has the important consequence of making schools accountable to parents, and leads to a more efficient schooling system, where poor performing schools are weeded out due to lack of patronage. Unfortunately, the cost of running a school in compliance with current regulations decreases the scope of innovation and competition, such as lack of autonomy in curriculum, teacher-hiring criteria, etc.

Another finding of ASER 2013 was an increase in private participation in education, as well as in enrolment in private schools for both rural and urban areas. The increase in enrolment in private schools from 2012 to 2013 has been very small (from 28.3% to 29%); however, since 2006, this increase has been steady. This shows that poor parents are voting with their feet, moving away from free government education towards fee-charging private schooling.

Currently, the RTE Act requires private schools to fulfil a number of conditions in order to receive government recognition. These conditions are primarily focused on inputs to education, such as pupil-teacher ratio, classroom size, drinking water and toilet facilities, etc. A study by Centre for Civil Society's research team has demonstrated that for budget private schools, meeting these norms would require close to a four-fold hike in fees.

These low-fee schools function at almost one-third the cost of government schools (with equal or better learning outcomes), according to a study by education expert Prof Karthik Muralidharan from the University of California in San Diego. For now, they are the only alternative for poor parents who do not want public schooling for their children. Unfortunately, these private schools are being put out of parents' reach either due to increase in fees, or through closure due to non-compliance with new norms. We need a system that enables and facilitates choice for parents, rather than restricting it.

How do we bring about choice in education? There are a number of models that have been adopted across the world to achieve this. The most common instrument is school vouchers, something we at CCS strongly advocate, whereby parents receive vouchers from the government, which they can take to empanelled schools, who will receive fees from the government for that particular student. This is a simple, effective way of increasing choice in education, while also promoting efficient use of public funds and preventing misuse by parents and schools.

Other models include conditional cash transfers and different variants of public-private partnerships such as Charter Schools in the US, Modern Schools proposed by the ministry of human resource development, the four-category PPP model proposed by the Mumbai Municipality and the Foundation Assisted Schools model in the Punjab province of Pakistan.

The entry of private aided schools is also a step up in terms of providing choice to consumers but the problem remains that since such schools are receiving money from the government, their accountability does not shift completely to the parents.

What we have right now under the RTE in the form of 25% reservation is another means of enhancing parental choice. Under this provision, parents from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are able to seek admittance of their children into private schools for seats reserved for them under the 25% quota. Schools then receive reimbursement of fees for these students from the government. The implementation of this provision has not yet been as effective as one would hope, given the complications arising with regard to conditions for selection and admittance of students, but it is still a marked improvement in terms of providing parents with alternatives to public schools (state-specific information on implementation of RTE 25% provision can be found at www.righttoeducation.in).

What we need is a system that puts the student at the centre of education, ensuring that they are learning and equipping themselves to be successful individuals in the future. The only way to create such a system is by making it accountable to the consumers who are partaking of the service. We must dilute the scope of state intervention in education and promote autonomy and choice for parents. Maybe it is time to have our very own 'School Choice Week'.