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The `Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009' (RTE Act) came into effect today, with much fanfare and an address by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In understanding the debates about this Act, a little background knowledge is required. Hence, in this self-contained 1500-word blog post, I start with a historical narrative, outline key features of the Act, describe its serious flaws, and suggest ways to address them.

Historical narrative

Today India creates the world's largest school voucher program. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 comes into force, meaning that from the start of the next school year, 25% of all recognized private schools must admit poor and marginalized students between the ages of six and 14—and government will pay for their tuition.

Heard of model rules? No? When an Act is passed in Parliament, there may still be vague areas that need closer attention. Model rules are written to help implement the Act. But the rules can never be better cooked than the original law was when poured into the parliamentary pressure cooker. No creative legislative masala can help cover up half-baked khana and half-thought laws. So it is with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, and its model rules. The Act, commonly referred to as the Right to Education (RTE) Act, becomes law on 1 April.

Over the years, India has aspired to provide education to every child in the age group of 6-14. Sadly, as some recent surveys and data show, there is a huge gap between aspirations and actual achievements. This gap can only be filled by encouraging private involvement over and above reforming government schools.

State of elementary education in India

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?

Our pedagogy should look beyond exams and help students fulfil their dreams. Since decades, the education policy India should follow has been a matter of debate. Aamir Khan’s “3 Idiots” has only intensified the discussion. In the movie, there is a flashback scene where the child protagonist attends classes of his choice. The child grows up to become a renowned scientist. The film questions the system of evaluation on the basis of examination in particular and the education system in general. In my view, this is a valid criticism. The so-called classroom model of education that we follow in our country is primitive.

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!

School voucher is the most powerful instrument to make government run schools accountable, say Parth J Shah and Baishali Bomjan

The Indian educational system is the second largest in the world in providing access and coverage and spends a whopping Rs.41,978 crore annually. This figure is impressive, but we are all too painfully aware that inefficiencies abound in this system. There is a huge gap between our aspirations and the achievements on the ground, which reflect poor accountability for the tax payers’ money.

Money is controlled by governments the world over. Parth J Shah argues that this need not be so

India’s ‘Education for All’ movement can be traced back to the World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, where delegates from 155 countries and representatives of 150 organisations pledged to provide basic education for all by the year 2000. Yes, the Education for All objective was to have been achieved eight years ago!