Reshma Ravishanker (Bengaluru)
Even if belatedly, primary-secondary education is becoming an important election issue — at least in state legislative assembly elections. Credit for this must primarily accrue to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which against all expectations swept the Delhi state assembly elections in 2015 and 2019 and also the Punjab state election last year. Reform of K-12 education — and especially bringing government schools on a par with private schools — is given high importance in AAP’s election campaigns.
Moreover after being voted into office, the AAP government of Delhi has walked the talk by allocating 25 percent of its annual budget for school education — spruced up the infrastructure of government schools, provided smart uniforms to children, introduced computers and even sent principals and teachers of government schools for training to Finland and Singapore, unprecedented initiatives for public schools.
And the outcomes of these initiatives have been equally unprecedented. Delhi government schools claim CBSE board exams results on a par with private schools. Moreover in the latest EducationWorld India School Rankings 2022-23 — the largest and most comprehensive worldwide — the Delhi government’s Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya (RPVV) primary-secondary schools were ranked #1 and #2 among state government schools countrywide with four ranked in the Top 10.
AAP’s sweeping victories in Delhi and Punjab attributed in large measure to its primary-secondary school reforms agenda, has not gone unnoticed in Karnataka which goes to the polls on May 10. All major political parties including the Congress, BJP, JD(S) and AAP, which released their election manifestos on May 1-2, have allotted substantial space to upgradation of the state’s 71,000 government primary-secondary schools — a hitherto neglected issue in Indian electoral politics. An estimated 50 million people in the state are eligible to vote for 224 assembly seats in Karnataka (pop.65 million) next week.
The ruling BJP, which is pulling out all the stops — including road shows featuring prime minister Narendra Modi — to win a second term in office, has made big K-12 education reform promises in its manifesto. Among them: to increase the budget allocation for education to 6 percent of GSDP (gross state domestic product) to “ensure quality education for every student in the state, as per NEP guidelines”; to launch PRE-KSHANA Mission (pre-primary education) to ensure that all pre-primary and primary students achieve foundational literacy and numeracy by 2025; upgradation of 65,911 anganwadis and to establish IIT-like Karnataka Institute of Technology in every district statewide. Moreover if elected, it promises to introduce the Visvesvaraya Vidya Yojane under which “the state government will partner with eminent individuals and institutions for holistic upgradation of government schools to top class standards”.
Likewise, the main opposition Congress party’s manifesto promises to restore “the true values of Bharat and Karnataka” and scientific temper by rewriting textbooks (a reference to the BJP rewriting history texts); fill teacher vacancies in government schools and colleges within a year; make the compulsory mid-day meal more nutritious, and regulate fees of private schools. More importantly, it says it will reject the Centre’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and promulgate Karnataka’s own State Education Policy. The second largest opposition party JD (S) manifesto says it will provide 6.8 lakh bicycles and 60,000 EV free-of-charge mopeds to girl students.
Although AAP, which after its win in Punjab has developed national ambitions, is also in the fray, it is an also-ran in Karnataka where caste calculations play a larger role. But it hopes to win its first seat in the Karnataka legislative assembly. Unsurprisingly, it has made reform of the public school system a top electoral priority. Following the Delhi model, it promises upgradation of all government schools; making all contract teachers permanent in government schools; establishing a fees regulation committee for private schools and introducing separate curriculums for music, theatre, entrepreneurship; and its patented happiness curriculum to improve mental well-being of children.
However, monitors of Karnataka’s crumbling education system are not impressed with the education reform promises made by these major parties. In particular, the Congress’ statement that if elected to power, it will reject NEP 2020 and prepare a new State Education Policy has taken the academy by surprise, especially since implementation of NEP 2020 has already begun in education institutions in the state.
“The Congress party says it will reject NEP if it comes to power. NEP is not a legal document. It is a vision document. For a policy to be evaluated in a true sense, it must complete at least one cycle. A blanket rejection of this painstakingly devised policy without evaluating the vision behind it, is irresponsible. There is some merit in Congress’ promise about revision of textbooks. That’s the prerogative of any government that comes to power and they are free to do so,” says Dr. Chetan Singhai, chief consultant, NEP 2020 and deputy director, Ramaiah Public Policy Centre, Bengaluru, who adds that election manifestos are merely declarations of intent and “implementation needs detailing, strategies, and deadlines”.
Nevertheless, monitors of Karnataka’s crumbling government school education system — the state is ranked #6 on NUEPA’s Education Development Index — derive some comfort from the considerable space given to education reform and upgradation in the manifestos of the major political parties, even if they are merely nominal politically correct statements. So do the editors of EducationWorld, established in 1999 with the mission to “build the pressure of public opinion to make education the #1 item on the national agenda.”