DELHI – This month, India’s Supreme Court ruled that children from poor economic backgrounds will have access to 25 percent of seats in the country’s private schools. The ruling upheld the constitutional validity of the Right to Education Act 2009, which mandates free education for every child between ages 6 to 14.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has famously remarked, “I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am totally because of education. So I want that the light of education should reach to all.”
The ruling got mixed reactions ranging from “landmark” to completely unfair. Parents express fear about the quality of education deteriorating in private schools, which they pay a hefty fee for. SmartPlanet spoke with experts on both sides of the debate.
Private schools argue that providing totally free education violates their right to operate independently. They don’t see how see how private schools will maintain their standards if 25 percent of students have to be provided free education without adequate financial support from the government or hiking fees.
Providing for underprivileged children, they insist, is the responsibility of the state. Government-run schools in India are notorious for providing poor quality education to millions of children. So, the judgment is perceived as lessening the government’s burden to improve its schools. “Most countries in the world there is viable system of state education. The question is how far the state can abdicate it responsibility,” asks Jyoti Bose, director of Springdales School in Delhi. “Do they want to reduce the private schools to the common school system?
There are a diverse range of private schools in India catering to different income levels. Those, resisting change, are criticized for being snobs. “Private schools, especially the ones that are deemed as elite or prestigious have a big problem with the act as it can rob them of their status,” says Ashok Agarwal, a prominent advocate known for championing universal education.
Agarwal sees the possibility of an overall improvement in the quality of education in both government and private schools since the law requires every school to have proper teachers and infrastructure in order to be recognized by a school board. “This would mean that even the government schools will have to get their act together to create an atmosphere for learning,” he says.
The government will spend Rs. 1190 ($20) a month on a child admitted to a private school, which is the amount it spends in a government school. Agarwal finds this amount “adequate” even though private school provide way more facilities. Bose does not find it adequate. “I am not saying nor asking for unreasonable amounts but what all will this amount cover,” she says. “What will this cover the uniforms or text books or IT education?” Others question whether the government even has the funds to provide for millions of more kids– at the government school rate.
Previously, the Delhi government had extended 25 percent reservations for “Economically Weak Sections” (EWS) in the capital’s schools that were set up on government lands available at lower rates. “Initially a number of schools complained, but things have settled down since and the experiment has been successful,” says Agarwal.
Bose, however, presents another side. She recalls an EWS application from parents who worked as university lecturers. They applied under the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), which was included in EWS. The director didn’t see how the couple fit in with parents who were rag pickers or ran tea stalls. “So I write to the education minister and I say look they are earning this much, they have given their income certificate. But he says you have to take them,” she says.
Bose concludes that simply admitting children without testing their ability doesn’t make the school inclusive or equal. “We have become more and more differentiated,” she says. “Now we know everybody’s economic state, which we did not know before. Caste has become more pronounced than it ever was.”