Kaushik Basu has reason to be happy, school voucher trials a hit

The Economic Times
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Over the last year, eleven-year old Sameera Ullah and her younger sister Saeeda have begun faring well at school. Their family of eight, with a disposable income of just Rs 5,500 per month, is proud of the girls’ ability to speak and read English much better than before.Elder brothers, Aman and Vali – who run the two-room household in North-east Delhi — are so enthused that nearly 10% of their tight budget has been set aside for private tuitions to the girls.Till 2008-09 , the two sisters were studying in a municipal school, where they learnt little as teachers were absent most times and the family wasn’t inclined to spend more on their education. What sets Sameera and Saeeda apart from their peers now is that they had access to school vouchers worth Rs 3,000-4 ,000 which could be encashed at a private English medium school of their choice.The vouchers — a live example of the Coupons theory expounded by chief economic advisor Dr Kaushik Basu in the Economic Survey – were given to 400 students like Sameera under The School Choice Campaign, a flagship project of the Centre for Civil Society. ‘Fund students, not schools!’ is the campaign’s vision which aims to arm poor children with the choice to receive quality education.“There is a cellphone to suit every pocket and need. But when it comes to education, a sector that is vitally important for economic and social progress, it is only the rich and middle-class who are able to exercise choice,” says Dr Parth Shah, the Centre’s president. While the project to fund girls like Sameera is underway, one project for Delhi’s poor students has already been concluded.Budget 2010-11 has increased allocation of funds to education by 16% — states were given an additional Rs 3,675 crore for elementary education. This expenditure would rise substantially as the Right to Education becomes a reality and here’s where the school vouchers campaign’s experience could be vital.Nearly 67% of the parents involved in the Delhi Voucher project exercised school choice by shifting their child to a new school.“Many of the parents moved their children to budget private schools, for a variety of reasons; better student-teacher ratios, less teacher absenteeism, or simply because they taught in English,” said Jan Sjunnesson Rao, the campaign’s associate director.Along with the project, the non-profit think tank also observed a control group of students from neighbouring government schools and Aanganwadis.“The students from the voucher group and the control group were tested on Hindi, English and Mathematics, and the performance of the voucher students was significantly better,” Mr Rao pointed out.The most welcome change was observed in the parents’ attitude. “Earlier, they were resigned to their children getting a sub-standard education as they could not afford anything better. But with given a choice that they never had before, they felt more invested in their children’s future,” Dr Shah explained.52% of the parents involved said that their households’ relative spending on education had, in fact, increased after getting the school voucher. Many, like Sameera’s brother Aman, enrolled the child in private tuition classes to bring him/her up to par with the rest of his/her classmates.Macroeconomic theory says that government expenditure ‘crowds out’ private investment, but in the case of the DVP, private investment has actually supplemented the external expenditure, simply by giving parents a choice in their child’s future.Mr Vikas Jain, principal of a school involved in the voucher scheme said that some students had to be admitted in lower classes as their learning levels at government schools weren’t up to the mark. “They readily accepted this. We held regular meetings with the parents and a teacher was made in charge of giving them any extra help they might require. Now the children are doing well and seem happy,” Mr Jain told ET.Despite higher spends by the Centre on education, government schools continue to face teacher absenteeism, high student-teacher ratios and drop-out rates. According to DISE (District INformation system for Education) flash statistics, total enrolment in primary classes (Class I to V) was 134.4 million in 2008-09. In Classes VI to VIII, the total enrolment had dramatically dropped to 53.4 million.Education vouchers have been attempted with various degrees of success in countries like Sweden, USA and the UK. In India, it is being rolled out in two districts of Uttarakhand on Public-Private partnership basis after a pilot project in 2007-08 . Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are also examining the voucher system, which could become the lynchpin for effectively implementing the Right to Education Act.Dr Shah hoped that the voucher system could do to government schools, what competition has done to the public sector companies in other sectors like airlines and telecom.