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Tamil Nadu: Confusing court order

EducationWorld August 2021 | Education News
Shivani Chaturvedi (Chennai)

An estimated 12,000 private unaided schools in Tamil Nadu were given the green light to col­lect 85 percent of annual fees payable for the academic year 2021-22 by the Madras high court on July 30.

The court’s order was issued with qualifications. The annual fee is payable in six equal instalments by parents who have not suffered a loss of income during the Covid-19 pandemic period. The court’s order was in response to several writ petitions of private schools and associations which challenged an April 20, 2020 state government order issued under the Disaster Manage­ment Act, 2005 restraining unaided (independent) private schools and colleges from compelling students or parents to pay prospective annual fees or pending dues for the lockdown period. Simultaneously, several parents’ associations had also filed petitions pleading for an order to restrain private school managements from making students access to online classes condi­tional upon clearance of pending and/or prospective school fees.

Clubbing and admitting petitions filed by the Private Schools Associations of Tamil Nadu and several parents’ associations, and citing the Supreme Court ruling in Indian School, Jodhpur and Anr vs. State of Rajasthan and Ors (May 3, 2021), Justice D. Krishnakumar permitted levy of contract­ed annual fees for 2021-22 with a 15 percent deduc­tion for unutilised facili­ties. The court added that students cannot be denied access to online classes under any circumstances during the new academic year started on June 15. Moreover, he observed that it’s the duty of local education ministry officials to sort out manage­ment-parents disputes.

However, the learned judge’s ruling with its somewhat contradic­tory directives has evoked mixed response from private schools and parents’ communities.

“Following the court’s verdict, our cash flow will increase by Rs.20-40 lakh this year. This will enable us to pay an additional Rs.1,000-2,000 to our teachers who have been getting only 75 percent of their contracted salaries,” says Priyanka Nandha­kumar, secretary at Sri Sankara Ma­triculation Higher Secondary School, Chennai, which has 1,200 students and 58 teachers on its muster rolls.

But even though the high court has allowed private school man­agements to collect 85 percent of contracted annual fees, they are perplexed about ways and means to derive the benefit of this court order.

“Since we cannot block students with unpaid fees from attending on­line classes, there’s no guarantee that parents will regularly pay fees on due instalment dates. Unless parents will­ingly pay their instalments, school managements are helpless. With high costs of fees collection and irregular cash flow, our member schools are likely to experience great difficulty in paying the salaries of 300,000 teach­ers and nearly 200,000 support staff. On the one hand, schools have the authority to collect fees but the order states that schools cannot expel any student for non-payment of fees. Our next step is to appeal to the state gov­ernment to underwrite unpaid fees,” says Martin Kennedy, president of the Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association.

Curiously, instead of pressuris­ing the state government to improve teaching-learning standards in Tamil Nadu’s 37,500 government schools to acceptable standards so that the middle class can avail free-of-charge primary-secondary education, parents’ associations are targeting private schools. “The court order to pay 85 percent of (contracted) fees is too heavy a burden in these pandemic times. Instead, private schools should seek relief from the government by way of exemption of vehicle or property taxes rather than insisting that parents pay high fees,” says Arumainathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Parents Welfare As­sociation.

This argument is typical of post-independence India’s subsidies-ad­dicted middle class. It is tantamount to penalising risk-bearing private school promoters for the ‘crime’ of promoting learning institutions while government schools established at public expense are allowed to go from bad to worse.

Also Read: Maharashtra: Unfortunate oversight

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