Dr. Geeta Kingdon is chair of education economics and international development at the Institute of Education, University of London
Four years after the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 became law on April 1, 2010, followed by an inconclusive Supreme Court judgement, there’s still widespread dissatisfaction with the provisions of the Act, its ambiguities, contradictions, and uneven application across India’s 29 states. Recently Smriti Irani, the newly appointed Union HRD minister, expressed an intent to revise the Act — an initiative long overdue to remove its lunacies and lacunae.
In particular, the controversial s.12 (1) (c) of the Act — which obliges private schools to surrender 25 percent of class I capacity to socio-economically disadvantaged children in their neighbourhood, and partially upheld by the Supreme Court — is far from a closed chapter. This provision bristles with practical and moral problems.
For instance, while s.12 specifies no such condition, the Uttar Pradesh state government requires private schools to admit poor neighbourhood children only if the capacity of neighbouring (within a 1 km radius) government schools is full. The stated intent of this condition is that it saves taxpayers’ money as the fees of poor students admitted in private schools have to be reimbursed by government. Yet the question arises whether the UP government is legally entitled to make this interpretation of s.12 to avoid wastage of taxpayers’ money.
Moreover, s.12 says the state shall reimburse private schools on the basis of (a) the actual fees charged by the school, or (b) the average per pupil expenditure (PPE) of government schools, whichever is lower. Uttarakhand has estimated its PPE at Rs.860 per month, Delhi at Rs.1,190 and Uttar Pradesh at Rs.450. On the other hand, the average private primary tuition fee in rural UP is Rs.90 per month, a mere 20 percent of the state government’s PPE. This wide differential is a temptation to low-end budget private schools (which constitute the vast majority of private schools in UP) to report inflated fees and enrolments, promote shell private schools and/or admit more than the prescribed quota of 25 percent to be reimbursed the government benchmarked tuition fee of Rs.450 per month per child. These shenanigans make it very difficult for the government to budget the reimbursements of private schools.
The problems of the state government apart, private schools have their own plethora of grievances relating to s.12. Inevitably, high-end urban private schools contend that the government’s reimbursement ceiling of Rs.450 per month is too low. They want transparent disclosure of the state government’s PPE calculations. Some estimates put the UP government schools’ actual PPE at Rs.2,000 per month in primary and Rs.2,500 in upper primary classes, excluding costs of school uniforms, books, stationery, computing, excursions, functions, etc.
Another complaint (confirmed by experience in states where s.12 provisions have been enforced for two-three years) is that the fee reimbursement process is prone to corruption and delays, without any penalty or compensation. Moreover, there’s also widespread apprehension that by accepting government fees reimbursement for poor children in private schools, the latter will fall within the purview of the Right to Information Act, 2005, requiring private school managements to make financial disclosures leading to extortion and blackmail, especially since most private schools are obliged to circumvent at least some of the plethora of often contradictory government rules and regulations.
For one, private school managements in UP are obliged to pay teachers salaries prescribed by the Sixth Pay Commission plus dearness allowance (DA), annual increments, house rent and city compensatory allowance. However, most private schools’ income from tuition fees is inadequate to pay Sixth Pay Commission salaries and government-mandated allowances. With tuition fee increases capped at 10 percent every three years, even the tiny number of private schools which were paying Sixth Pay Commission salaries prior to 2013 are obliged to transgress the law, since they cannot pay the prescribed annual increments of 12-15 percent per year.
Secondly, most private schools in UP are sited on land designated as residential which is illegal as per Local Development Authority (LDA) rules. In rural areas, the majority of private schools are built on agricultural land which is also illegal. LDAs leave land use regulations unaltered since they enable officials to extort bribes from private schools for flouting rules. Thirdly, the overwhelming majority of private schools are technically illegal because they are run for profit, which the RTE Act disallows.
The most urgent imperative for state governments is to improve the quality of their schools because they will have to accommodate vast numbers of poor children even if private schools admit the full quota of poor children in their neighbourhood under s.12 (1) (c). This requires not only substantially greater investment in infrastructure, but also in teacher training and accountability. Indeed, accountability is the prime differentiating factor between private and government schools. If the government can persuade highly paid teachers to attend school regularly and teach diligently, it would make a world of difference for India’s children.
Other articles by Dr Geeta Kingdon: