Unintended school voucher programme: RTE Bill Launches School Vouchers in India

Thursday, 24 September 2009
Parth J Shah

The most powerful idea in the RTE Bill is the reservation of 25% of seats in private unaided schools across the country for the children of weaker sections and disadvantaged groups. The poor will be able to choose one of the recognized private schools and the government would pay for their education. This is basically the idea of the school voucher. Even though the government does not use this terminology, the 25% reservation has created a National School Voucher Program. And it would be the world’s largest school voucher program!

A school voucher is basically an instrument that enables students to access private schools they otherwise cannot afford.  This empowerment of the poor improves the equality of access and also creates competition among government and private schools for poor students.  Without the voucher, the poor would be able to attend only the free government schools. With the voucher, they can also access English medium private schools. This increased choice for the poor now compels government schools not to take poor students as guaranteed customers and actively compete for them. Thus school vouchers empower the poor, enhance access and educational opportunities, and increase choice and competition.

How many government-sponsored students would go to private schools in the first year of the program under the RTE Bill, possibly April 2010? There are about 10 million students in class 1 in private schools. About 2.5 million children will get government vouchers to attend class 1 in the first year of the program (25 % of 10 million).  Each year another 2.5 million children will be added as the first batch moves to class 2. By class 12, there will be 30 million children attending private schools with government support.

With the RTE Bill, the government has launched one of the boldest education schemes in the world. It would be an equally great challenge to implement it properly and effectively.  Private schools are most likely to challenge the reservation in the courts. If that fails, they would challenge the amount that the government would pay them for education of the government sponsored children.  The poor and disadvantaged parents would face cultural, social and economic pressures in having their children study with those of the upper castes and classes. A large number of children would compete for these coveted seats in private schools, there would be tremendous pressure on local governments to operate without corruption and with transparency. They are many such issues to consider, plan for and tackle effectively in making this National School Voucher Scheme deliver quality education to the disadvantaged.

On the one hand the RTE Bill empowers the poor to choose a private school. On the other hand, the infrastructure requirements including a playground would make all budget private schools illegal. The budget private schools normally charge fees in the range of Rs 50 to 300 per month and most of them cater to the children of the poor—cycle rickshaw pullers, vendors, daily-wage labourers. They also operate from the same neighbourhoods where the poor live—slum areas, shanty towns, peripheries of our cities. Many studies moreover show that these budget private schools with poor infrastructure and low-paid teachers do a better job in teaching than most government schools. The high infrastructure requirements of playground and library, ideally desirable, would force budget schools down. This would take away the little choice that poor parents have today and deny them English medium education.

One fails to understand the logic of closing down budget private schools by the force of the law.  If all government schools would become great in three years, as stipulated in the Bill, these fee-charging schools would close down by the force of economics. Actually the existence and scale of these schools would be an objective barometer to judge how well the Bill has fulfilled its promise. Forcibly closing down these schools just shows lack of government’s confidence in the capacity to keep its promise.

The voucher scheme, now in the Bill, has many opponents. But one issue on which all across the philosophical spectrum are united is the assurance of quality. The Bill finalized by the socialist Arjun Singh talks only about inputs and has nothing to offer on learning outcomes. It guarantees the right to schooling but not the right to education; it promises graduation but no learning.

The School Management Committee with 50% women members could lead to more effective local governance. For that, the Committee must have the necessary powers—to manage school funds as well as all functionaries.

The passage of the Bill clearly shows the commitment of the government, but it is just a starting point, a lot of real hard work remains to be done to achieve quality education for all in India. The unintended National School Voucher Program may turn out to be the best new idea in the Bill that would deliver on the promise if government implements it whole heartedly.