Sibal's RTE non-solution: focus on 7%, ignore the rest

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. So one is amused to read that Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal thinks that the “Right to Education Act (RTE) can be a model for the world” when it hasn’t even been rolled out good and proper.

The truth is no one can know how the RTE will ultimately work, for everything depends on how it is implemented. Given the kind of hash our governments have usually made of even simple schemes, one has to keep one’s fingers tightly crossed on this one.

But before we look more closely at Sibal’s boast, it is important to acknowledge one basic point: the very existence of the RTE is an admission of failure of the Indian state in its most basic duty for over 60 years.

In discussions on the role of the state in mixed or capitalist economies, it is often said that the state must get out of business, and instead focus on core social services like education and health.

In India, we seem to be taking the opposite route – of the state trying to hold on to business at any cost (the UPA’s official policy is it will always hold 51 percent in every public sector company, be in banks, or oil, steel or coal companies), and letting go of education – where it now wants private sector schools to take on the burden of educating the poor with 25 percent reservation.

The RTE could actually end up destroying the low-cost entrepreneurial schools that came up in response to the failure of the public schooling system to deliver the goods. Pascal Lauener/Reuters

Sibal incongruously argues that the “the provision for admitting 25 percent children from disadvantaged groups and weaker sections in private unaided (non-minority) schools is an attempt at affirmative action and social integration.” If that is so, why give minority institutions alone the right to refuse “affirmative action and social integration?” when they are the ones most in need of it?

The problem with the RTE can thus be summed up thus: when 90 percent (Sibal’s estimate) of households “will have to continue to enroll their children in government schools even after children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections obtain 25 percent of the seats in pre-school/Class I in private schools every year” where is the RTE even trying to address this larger issue?

This is quixotic. If you can’t fix 90 percent of the system (it’s 93 percent, according to private estimates) where no worthwhile education is delivered, why focus on the remaining 10 percent? Is this not an attempt to solve the problem from the wrong end? Or an attempt to pretend attempting a solution by shifting it to someone else’s shoulder?

On the other hand, the RTE could actually end up destroying the low-cost entrepreneurial schools that came up in response to the failure of the public schooling system to deliver the goods.

What makes this doubly dangerous is that this small group of private schools already caters to 40 percent of schooling demand in the country.

As an article in India Today points out, “That government schools are of poor quality is evident from the fact that 40 percent of school-going children in India attend private schools, which constitute only 7 percent of the schools.”

The future looks dicey: the 7 percent which caters to 40 percent of school-going children will now have to reserve another 25 percent – which means 7 percent of schools will cater to 50 percent of the school demand!

But even assuming the government has touching faith in these private schools to do what is really its job, is the RTE an instrument for empowering these schools or debauching them?

Manish Sabharwal, Chairman of TeamLease, a firm that offers temporary hires to companies and institutions, is clear that the RTE will damage private schools beyond repair. And he gives five reasons why: it will lower capacities, as many private schools will opt out, it will result in higher costs, reduce competition, increase corruption and create more confusion in the education.

According to Sabharwal, the “RTE timetables the extinction of 15 lakh 'unrecognised' private schools where parents pay something to avoid something that is free (state schools, that is)…RTE unleashes rules that lead to higher costs, corruption and confusion. This hostile habitat will halt the explosion of education entrepreneurship and blunt competition that creates quality.”

Sabharwal’s logic: “If the central government can't make up its mind if 24 percent or 42 percent of India is poor, how will a block education officer decide which child is poor? In reality, they will auction their poverty certification to the highest bidder. RTE empowers BEOs to convert every school into a personal ATM. Not all, but most will.”

In fact, what is meant to promote inclusivism, will end up pushing up costs all around – defeating the very purpose of universalising education. While Sabharwal clearly says that the RTE will lead to higher school fees since “the central and state governments don't have the Rs 2 lakh crore needed for fair implementation,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in The Indian Express, confirms that the Act will unfairly burden the lower middle class.

“The serious problem with the RTE is not 25 percent reservations. There is no expropriation insofar as schools are being compensated to some degree. But the court’s vague homilies on burden-sharing skirt a fundamental issue of fairness. In funding by taxation we usually adopt progressive taxation. In the current scheme there is a real danger that a proportionately much larger burden may fall on relatively lower middle class parents than rich ones. The argument for exempting minority institutions seems bogus,” says Mehta.

An article in Outlookmagazine captures the sense of disquiet among middle class parents of private schools who fret that their fees will go even higher when they have already been raised to unaffordable levels to enable higher salaries for teachers.

Sabharwal would concur: “RTE essentially mandates a huge rise in school fees. It micro-specifies salaries, qualifications and infrastructure. Delhi schools that don't pay a minimum of Rs 23,000 per month to teachers will not receive recognition and specifies that primary teachers must have a two-year education diploma; this means that 33 percent of teachers have to be fired,” he wrote in The Economic Times.

Surely an Act that would require (reality will surely force a rethink) the firing of 33 percent of the resource in shortest supply (good teachers) is seriously flawed?

The hole at the heart of the RTE is that there is no pipeline of supplies of good teachers to enable it to work.

At a time when the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that “learning inside Indian elementary schools (primary and upper primary) are a national scandal” (read here), one wonders if the RTE is really the answer to our education and empowerment problems or something that will compound these issues.


Published Date: Apr 23, 2012 01:43 pm | Updated Date: Apr 23, 2012 02:00 pm