-Dipta Joshi (Mumbai)
More than 1,200 english-medium schools have closed down in Maharashtra during the past two years due to financial hardship. The majority of them are financially independent budget private schools (BPS) levying tuition fees of Rs.30,000 per year or less. They became unviable during the prolonged government mandated pandemic lockdown of all education institutions countrywide for 82-90 weeks when only online education was permitted.
With BPS promoters having suffered massive income loss during the pandemic, the Independent English Schools Association of Maharashtra (IESA), comprising 4,324 private budget schools as member institutions, has demanded the state government constitutes a new department within the education ministry to navigate revival of budget private schools.
Maharashtra’s BPS which constitute 83 percent of the state’s 58,000 private schools, educate children of aspirational lower middle and organised sector working class households. Unlike government schools which tend to be English language averse, they offer English-medium education at affordable price. While per-student expenditure in government-run schools is Rs.60,000 per annum, budget private schools provide primary-secondary education with better learning outcomes for as little as Rs.25,000-30,000 per year.
With BPS dispensing better quality education, better infrastructure, academic rigour, extra-curricular activities, state board curriculum, digital and IT-enabled campuses — mainly by keeping teachers’ salaries low — state government schools which pay high salaries but are notorious for crumbling infrastructure, and for sub-nationalist reasons prefer to teach in the state’s dominant language, have been experiencing a steady exodus of students, despite providing a free mid-day meal.
The steady rise of budget private schools has not gone down well with the state government which seldom dispels populist perception that private schools are run by profiteers and are loaded with ‘donations’ extorted in admission season. The mutually antagonistic relationship between BPS and government worsened during the almost two years of officially mandated closure of schools during the Covid pandemic when the revenue streams of BPS dried up.
Although during the lockdown, a substantial number of BPS switched to online education, many parents refused to pay tuition fees on government instigation. During the lockdown, the state government issued circulars directing private schools not to expel any student for non-payment of fees, and directed private school managements to charge only 50 percent of contracted fees if they provided online education.
“We are disappointed by the apathy of the education ministry despite our major contribution to the education sector. Private school principals are threatened with police action and first information reports (FIRs) filed against them for asking for fees which is our legal right. The government announces policies that are contrary to law to suit parents and students, and doesn’t let schools demand their fees. This has placed school education and the future of students in danger. As a result of these contradictory policies of the education ministry, 1,200 private budget schools in the state were forced to close leaving the educational future of thousands of students in jeopardy. There is a need to re-think the impact of such vote-bank pleasing policies. The ministry needs to stop threatening us with derecognition each time we ask for recalibration of tuition fees, and even when we demand payment of dues for students admitted under s.12 (1) (c) of the RTE Act, 2009, which have accumulated to Rs.900 crore. Had the government made timely s.12 (1) (c) reimbursements, the number of schools forced to shut down would have been less,” says Rajendra Singh, president, IEAS.
Under s.12 (1) (c) of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, all private schools — including BPS — are obliged to reserve 25 percent capacity in classes I-VIII for poor children in their neighbourhood and provide them free-of-charge education. Under s.12 (2), the state government is mandated to pay private schools the per-pupil cost it incurs in government primary/elementary (classes I-VIII) schools.
In a letter dated April 11 to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, IESA says: “We strongly feel that a dedicated department headed by a private schools education minister be appointed who will focus on the growth and development of this very important sector of schooling… Private schools must have their own mentor and guide so that due justice is accorded to their functioning.”
That IESA’s demand will be met seems doubtful since the clear intent of the government is to force the closure of as many BPS as possible, a self-wounding project in which gullible parents are complicit.