Are private schools better?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Parth J Shah
Business Standard

It is in recognition of the merit of private schools that the Act says they must reserve seats for the poor. Why not give students a 100 per cent choice?

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act entrusts the government with the responsibility to ensure that every child gets quality education in India. Does this mean that every child has to go to a building called “government school”? Is the school’s ownership really critical to assuring education? Does it really matter to parents and children where they get quality education?

The government guarantees education but this need not be achieved only through government schools. Sadly, many believe that schools have to be built, owned and operated by the government. These educationists seem to have turned a blind eye to the changing reality of the education landscape in India.

Parents are getting tired of teachers’ absenteeism and lack of accountability in government schools where 52 per cent of class-five students can’t even read to match up to the level of class-two (Annual Status of Education Report, 2009). They are increasingly rejecting free government schools and choosing fee-charging private schools. The Aser 2009 report shows that close to 22 per cent of children in rural India attend private schools. This number is much higher in urban areas with states like Punjab and Haryana at the forefront, where two out of every three children attend private school.

Most of these children study not in elite schools but in budget private schools in poor neighbourhoods. These schools charge an average fee of Rs 70-150 per month in rural areas, and up to Rs 350 per month in urban areas. The budget private schools are the fastest-growing segment in India’s education ecosystem.

Should government undermine or support the choices that the poor are making with their hard-earned money? The aam aadmi government should support the aam aadmi. There are three good reasons for this. One, private schools provide better education; two, they are more cost-effective; and three, they are more accountable and responsive to parents. These schools also offer English-medium schooling that is preferred by parents today.

Studies by Geeta Kingdon, James Tooley and Aser 2009 suggest that private schools indeed provide better education, though the extent of the difference in quality varies in the studies. Private school students have as much as a 41 per cent advantage in English as compared to government school students even when adjusted for socio-economic and other factors (Aser 2009).

As for the cost-effectiveness, there is hardly any debate. It has been widely established by researchers from across India, such as SM Kansal for Delhi, SC Jain for Gujarat, R Govinda and NV Varghese for Madhya Pradesh and Geeta Kingdon for Uttar Pradesh, that per-pupil expenditure in budget private schools is vastly below that of state schools. A major difference stems from the fact that salaries of teachers in private unaided schools are four- to-seven times lower than that of government schools.

Private schools provide relatively better quality education at a much cheaper cost. How should government respond to this reality? The answer is simple: Fund students, not schools! Public money should follow the child, not the school, through school vouchers. The school that the parents and students choose should get the funding. The government should fix an amount that it wants to spend on every student, and transfer funds to schools in relation to the number of students enrolled. Instead of current lump sum funding, the state schools would receive their grant depending on the number of students they attract and retain.

Under this “student first” (as opposed to “school first”) system of financing, all schools will compete for all children, rich and poor, and all schools will be accountable to all parents, rich and poor. This would enhance parental choice which would further healthy competition among schools, both government or private, and improve their quality.

The new Act already recognises this reality and offers 25 per cent of seats in private schools to government-sponsored poor students. Wouldn’t it be better if the other 75 per cent of the poor children also had similar choice? We would then move from the Right to Education to what would actually assure quality education for all, the Right to Education of Choice.