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Free Education To Poor In Private Schools: What A Bluff!

25% of seats are supposedly reserved in all private schools for poor families. How many of us have seen poor children in the classrooms our children study in? Does NEP 2020 address this issue – of course not.

Free education to the poor in private schools sounds like a brilliant idea to bridge the gap between the quality of education that children from different economic and social backgrounds of our country can benefit from. Anyone who would first come across this policy would appreciate the intent. However, the real scenario while implementing such a populist policy is far from what the idea presents at first. Whether poor families should send their children to expensive private schools, just cause the fees is taken care of, is a whole new topic that would require another article. The topic today I want to talk on is rather – when the government makes populist policy like forcing private schools to reserve a quarter of their student intake for children from poor families, how serious is the government in its intent to implement such a program? And does the much-celebrated NEP 2020 even touch upon this issue in its quest to deal with the much-debated education gap? Congress or BJP, both have conveniently and possibly, intentionally overlooked this issue. 

The Right to Education Act (RTE) 2009 mapped out roles and responsibilities for the Centre, State and all local bodies to rectify gaps in the education system and enhance the quality of education in the country. It instituted free and compulsory education for children aged between 6-14 years in India under Article 21(A) of the Constitution of India. The right to education was made a fundamental right versus a directive principle of state policy. 

According to Section 12 of the RTE, unaided private schools are required to reserve 25 per cent of the seats in entry-level classes for students belonging to disadvantaged groups and economically weaker sections. For every RTE admission, the state is supposed to pay these schools an amount fixed by the government or the tuition fee of the school, whichever is less. For example, Maharashtra has fixed an amount of Rs 17,000 a year for RTE students while Tamil Nadu has set the amount to Rs. 11,000. States are allowed to frame their own rules with regards to the eligibility and income levels for the socially disadvantaged and economically backward sections, level of entry of students and the kind of documents required for admission. 

Though the policy seems to address the issues one might think would occur, the real essence of solving this problem isn’t framing policies, but rather the efficiency in its implementation. 

Despite over a decade of its enactment, some states are yet to address the provisions of the Act. Nearly 80% of private schools meant to comply with the provisions do not participate in the admission process nationally, and only about 22% of these designated seats are filled. One would assume that roadblocks in RTE implementation would stem from the “perceived” evil, status-obsessed private schools, but that isn’t the ground reality. It is in fact the government itself that is responsible. So what’s really been going on? 

First, the cap in the vicinity of Rs. 11,000-17000 on annual school fees is too low. The cap doesn’t undergo any inflation adjustment year over year and stays the same for many years. But let’s not debate how much that amount should be. Not today. Whatever the amount is, it should be automatically revised up every year to adjust for inflation and increase in costs of running a school and paying the teachers.  

Second, the payment to private schools for these RTE admissions has been pending for several years, creating huge financial issues for the schools. The Maharashtra English Schools Trustees Association (MESTA) claims that the state government has not released the desired dues for the last two years. According to MESTA, the government owes around Rs 700 crores to around 8,000 schools in Maharashtra. The story is the same for other states. According to the Federation of Association of Private Schools in Tamil Nadu, the government has not paid dues amounting to Rs. 370 crores since 2018. I am sure these are not the worst-performing states. There are delays in reimbursement from Centre to State, and then from State to the respective schools, independent of each other. So the blame falls on both Centre and State governments. Now, what motivation would the school have to cooperate in the RTE implementation if the government doesn’t keep their end of the bargain? They expect private schools, which in theory are non-profit entities, to bear losses for several years to facilitate political parties’ vote bank tactics? No wonder schools are citing non-payment of pending reimbursement as grounds for rejection of admissions to eligible children.  

Third, who bears the remaining cost when a student enrolls in a school where school fees is higher than the reimbursement amount of Rs. 17000? Say, Rs. 75,000. Who bears the difference? The school! So essentially the schools are expected to bear the loss of Rs 58,000 per student. In such a situation it is hardly fair to blame the school to avoid the implementation of this ludicrous policy? The private school is not only expected to bear the loss per student, but they also don’t get paid the reimbursement that is due to them. Again, I don’t want to debate whether this policy itself makes sense or not. It doesn’t. But today, I want to point out the fallacy in its implementation. 

Does the mint fresh NEP 2020 address any of the above issues? No. It does expand the free education cover up to 18 years of age, which is a good thing. I wonder what was the ridiculous logic behind keeping the free education cap to 14 years earlier. The real implementation of RTE requires higher budget allocation to education. As far back as the 1960s, the Kothari Education Commission had suggested that budget allocation for education should be 6%, and the governments have always promised to meet this figure. Despite these promises, the current budget allocation is just 3.8%. NEP 2020 again mentions 6% as the target, but doesn’t mention the time frame to achieve the same. Mentioning the 6% of GDP target for education budget is futile if we are not setting an allocation target for this year or the method to achieve the ambitious target in the coming years. 

No point making grand populist statements like free education till 12th grade if the government has no intentions to follow through with adequate budget allocations. The program, especially in reference to private school participation in RTE, is unfortunately doomed to fail. So every time government talks about free education for all or free anything, we have to call the bluff.

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