Thinking beyond 6%

Monday, 30 October 2006
Parth J Shah
Education World

After 59 years of Independence, 4 out of 10 Indians are illiterate and essentially barred from a prosperous future.

Successive governments continue to launch more schemes to promote “education for all.” Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is the latest scheme. The state continues to build more schools to ensure that education is accessible to the poor. Yet, government schools are notorious for their problems: 62 % drop-out rates, students in fifth grade who can't write their own names, teacher absenteeism and lack of accountability, tribal children taught in the state official language and not in their home language, not to mention the abysmal waste and corruption as recently highlighted by the CAG.

Could these problems be solved by further raising government spending on education? Or should we ask the state to first bring up the existing schools to the standards applied to private recognized schools? These are two of the questions I raised at several of the recent meetings and conclaves in Delhi on the issue of the Right to Education Bill and the education policy generally.

At one meeting for the National Knowledge Commission, the educationists refused even to discuss the issue of quality in government schools. They believe that any discussion of education quality in government schools is simply a ruse to denigrate state’s role in education and to promote privatization of education. And indeed there was no discussion at all on the quality of government education. That however did not stop them from discussing, rather deriding, the quality of private education ad nauseum.

Why do the poor send their children to private schools when a free government school is within walking distance? And what does it say about the quality of a service that one cannot give away for free? They have an unambiguous answer: the poor are duped by advertising and want the social status that comes with children in private schools. That is the reason, they seem to insinuate, why many of the urban poor spend as much as one-third of the family income on children’s education.

At all these meetings, including the ones by the MHRD and the Planning Commission, the most vocal and dominant demands were primarily two: Raise government education spending to 6% of GDP and invest more in training and equipping teachers and hiring more qualified teachers. Well, actually it’s only one demand: spend more and more, until we say enough!

A Different Analysis and Approach

Municipal schools in Bangalore spend Rs 1700 per student. Not per year but per month! Delhi state schools spend Rs 800-1200 per month per student. In Mumbai it’s Rs 900-1100. The issue is not in how much money is being spent by the government, but how it’s being spent.

Given the quality of government schools, the poor have been moving to private schools. The fastest growing sector in education is not of private colleges but of budget private schools. They are everywhere—in urban, semi-urban and rural areas. These private schools for the poor charge Rs 50 to 250 a month, where one finds the children of domestic helpers, cycle-rickshaw pullers and street entrepreneurs. In rural areas, about 16 percent of the students are in private schools, in urban areas it is close to 50 percent and in states like Haryana more than 70 percent of students are in private schools.

The License-Permit Raj in Education and in the Economy

Private schools can play – indeed, already are playing – a critical role in reaching the poor and satisfying their educational needs. Yet, the License-Permit Raj makes it difficult to open new schools and continues to have severe stifling effects on education. Complex rules and regulations have the same effect in education as it had on the economy prior to the 1991 reforms. The law requires all schools to be non-profit, why not allow schools to decide whether they want to be for-profit or non-profit? People can earn profits selling food or water, why starve education from further investments by keeping it non-profit?

Bollywood and Education

Until recently, Mahesh Bhatt had to borrow money from the underworld to finance his films. Bollywood was not recognized as an “industry’ by the government and so it could not borrow from official financial institutions. Education is also not in the ‘industry’ list. Edupreneurs cannot borrow to finance schools. Like Bollywood, shouldn’t education be declared an ‘industry’?

Fund Students, Not Schools!

The model we have used to guarantee food security could be adapted to assure education to all. The whole food sector—from production at the farm to retailers everywhere—is in private hands, each one working for profit. Those who can afford, buy their food in the market. Those who cannot, we have created PDS shops for subsidized food. The PDS shops are not working well, discussion now is to introduce food stamps/ vouchers (like in the US and many other countries.) Instead of subsidizing PDS shops, the government gives ‘money’ (stamps or vouchers) to the poor directly and they buy their food from the same grocery store that the non-poor use. Would education vouchers be a better way to assure quality education to the poor? Instead of giving grants to government schools which provide free education to the poor (like the PDS shops), give grants to the poor directly (like food stamps). Fund students, not schools!

Education vouchers can break the monopoly of the state on the education of the poor. The poor have no choice but the free government school. Like any monopoly, this one too does not serve its customers well.

Innovative reforms are necessary to save one more generation of India's children from being lost to a failing education system controlled by our graying educationists. There is one sure way to identify these spend-more educationists: their comment usually begins with “When I was in school…” I wonder, in which area of public policy discussion, do we start by stating how great it was in older times? We need to think outside the box—the box of the state school and the boxed-brain of the spend-more educationist.