Monday, September 20, 2010

Don’t close these schools

The summer of 2010 will be remembered by many Mandal Education Officers in Andhra as a particularly lucrative one. Emboldened by the new Right to Education Act, they swooped down on unsuspecting schools in the slums and villages of Andhra Pradesh in order to shut them down. By June end they had created so much fear and terror among poor parents that the Secretary of Education of the state government had to clarify that the new law gives unrecognized schools three years to gain recognition and will not be closed immediately. By then corrupt officials of the state bureaucracy had achieved their objective. Bribes had tripled and one official even boasted that he may not have done as well as at the Commonwealth Games, but it had been one his best months.

India must be unique in the world for wanting to close down schools that serve the poor. What would be admired elsewhere as an example of entrepreneurial initiative (or jugaad as we say) is illegal here. These schools typically charge fees of Rs 100 to 250 per month but do not get recognition because they fail to meet all the standards—for example, they don’t have a large enough playing field or they cannot pay the minimum government teacher salary of Rs 20,000 a month. In order to comply with standards, they would have raise fees to Rs 1200, and then the poor would not be able to afford them.

Why should a parent spend hard earned money on fees when her child could go for free to a government school plus get a mid-day meal? The reason is that one in four government primary teachers is illegally absent on any day and one in four who is present is not teaching. This disgraceful lack of accountability is obvious to the poorest parent. A low cost private school may not be much but at least the teacher shows up and is motivated. Hence, more than half the children in urban India are now in private schools and a quarter in rural areas. This migration is so rapid that Jean Dreze predicts that government schools will soon become ‘ghost schools’.

To want to close down institutions that genuinely serve the needs of the poor seems bizarre and immoral. Their critics dismiss these schools as being of very poor quality and claim that the poor are being ‘duped by unscrupulous elements’. But what about the even poorer quality of government schools that drives parents to these schools in the first place? No one knows quite how many unrecognized schools exist in India but estimates are in the lakhs. It is hard to believe that millions of parents are capable of being ‘duped’ year after year. While sending its own children to private schools, the establishment stridently opposes a similar choice for the poor. Of the twenty million employees of the state, hardly any send their children to government schools (except to elite Central or Navodhya schools).

The Right to Education Act is a landmark legislation created by well meaning persons. It has many fine features but its great weakness is to totally neglect outcomes. More than half our children in class 5 cannot read nor do simple arithmetic that is expected of them in class 2. The focus of the law makers was to get all children into school. Oddly enough, more than 95% of primary school age children are already in school. The real problem is high dropouts and this relates to high teacher absence. The Rs 43,500 crore required by this new law will mostly finance government teacher salaries that are now seven times India’s per capita income against a global norm of two. High teacher salaries are good in principle but only if they are accompanied by performance.

In the end no democracy will allow tens of thousands of schools to close down. The new law will merely raise the amount of bribe to inspectors. This in turn will force schools to raise fees, and the burden will fall on the poor. Imagine a law that makes people dishonest and harms the poor! Our democracy is a work in progress, and the answer is not to close schools but to understand their situation and amend the law. Since these schools charge such low fees, let us have a graded system of recognition, as we have first and second class tickets in a railway train. Allow these schools the freedom to pay market salaries to teachers and a have smaller play areas to ensure that their fees remain affordable by the poor. Don’t treat them like illegal brothels but see them as heroic examples of people solving their own problems. Make them safe from rapacious inspectors. They are symbols of India’s unique economic model—of a nation rising despite the state.

Gurcharan Das is the author of ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’