The right to education bill that will be tabled sometime in the coming year, has the potential to bring about a significant transformation in elementary education in India. It attempts to make effective a child's right to free and compulsory education by focussing on the state's obligation to provide schools of 'equitable' quality. The bill contains some potentially radical ideas. It builds upon the Kothari committee's idea of a system of neighbourhood schools. It obliges the state to provide schools corresponding to certain norms for every child. It radically decentralizes the recruitment of teachers. It creates a partial voucher system. Private schools will have to reserve 25 per cent of their seats for randomly chosen students from the neighbourhood; the state will defray the expenses of these children, up to the level of the per child expenditure approved by the state or the fees of the school, whichever is lower. But will these measures promote access to high quality schooling' Are there possible perverse consequences that might defeat the aims of the REB'
The overall consequences of the REB look somewhat indeterminate. It could be the knight that transforms education, or a deceptive Trojan horse that inflicts hidden costs. While the REB is very promising, four crucial gaps will need to be addressed.
The Quality Gap: Although the bill aims to provide education of 'equitable quality', the emphasis is more on equitable than quality. This impression comes from the fact that nowhere is 'quality' actually defined. Or rather, the only measures of quality are 'input' measures, the number of teachers, size of the buildings and so forth. A resistance to overburdening children is one thing, doing away with all commensurable measures of performance is quite another. Although an amendment to introduce quality measures is in the works, this will need some refining.
The Accountability Gap: The central problem of the current school system is the accountability gap, where centralized recruitment and the political power of teachers make it difficult to impose any degree of accountability. This bill takes some radical steps to ensure accountability. Teachers shall now be appointed for specific schools, by the local authority or a school management committee. These will have the authority to deduct teachers' salaries for non-attendance. But the key ambiguity lies in the fact that the terms of employment for the teachers will be specified by the local authority. What will these terms of employment be' Crucially, under what conditions could teachers be fired' Could we end up with a system (as in universities) where recruitment is local, but the terms of appointment make it impossible to do anything about seriously errant teachers' If there are no performance measures for student progress, how will parents be empowered to judge whether teachers are giving their children quality education' Proponents of more radical voucher schemes will go further. The central mechanisms for producing accountability, competition and choice, are largely absent in this bill. Schools often don't perform because they have a captive market. Children cannot exit because they don't have other schools they could go to. On this view, the way to produce accountability is to give vouchers to parents that can be redeemed at any school of their choice. There is a complicated debate on the effectiveness of vouchers. Even if one does not want to fully go down that route, it will be worth thinking harder about whether neighbourhood schools with captive markets run the risk of trapping children.
The Financing Gap: The act obliges the government to provide resources to make the provisions of the REB effective. But who decides what a reasonable cost to demand from the state is' Local authorities have the freedom to determine what they need to implement this bill effectively. But a lot will turn on how they are incentivized to make these calculations. For instance, teachers' salaries in the public sector are inordinately high compared to the private sector. A local authority that is intelligent should hire teachers at a cost lower than what the government might sanction, but it will have no incentive to do so if it does not get rewarded for efficiency by the savings being ploughed back into that local authority's school budget. Or there is the reverse danger, of the government setting per capita allocations so low, that schools are scrounging for quality resources. Will the funding mandated by the act be treated as a minimum norm or a maximum limit' The bill needs a supplement that effectively works out the economics of this enterprise. Some preliminary estimates suggest that the bill will require India to commit at least 6 per cent of its gross domestic product to education; this is an achievable target but will require immense financial re-engineering. Pakistan has just committed to 4 per cent GDP on education and making English mandatory from Class 1.
The Public-Private Gap: The section of the bill that will receive most discussion is the requirement that all private schools be obliged to reserve 25 per cent seats for randomly chosen students from the neighbourhood. Does this provision amount to undue interference with private sector freedoms' Schools will have no right to screen students, none to examine them. The pedagogical challenges of socially integrating children from different classes are probably overstated in critiques of the bill. But the investment concerns are real. The state already taxes and is charging a cess. Why should it impose further costs on the private sector and on middle-class parents' As it stands, the bill will impact two classes of private schools differently. It will probably have little impact on a majority of private schools whose cost structures are lower than state schools, since the state will be making per pupil payments. But it is going to have a significant impact on the 'high end' schools that spend a good deal more per pupil. These schools will effectively have to subsidize other students heavily, and it will almost certainly entail making these schools more expensive.
Add to these two concerns. The act says that setting up a school will require the permission of a Competent Authority (local government), which will have to certify that it has no objection to a new school being established. This could easily turn into a licence-permit raj of the worst kind. And the act also obliges schools to teach in the mother tongue. In an age where access to English is a marker of opportunity, why should the state mandate choice of medium' The question is: will the REB deter investment in top quality private schools' Will this be a good thing'
Finally, there is an argument to be made that if the state is going to treat education as a fundamental right, should it not also pay the average per child cost for every child, regardless of what kind of school they go to' If parents choose to put children in more expensive schools, they can make up the difference. This might have the effect of making better quality schools more accessible to a wider range of parents, and will also offset some of the criticism that parents who send their children to private schools are being taxed four times over: normal taxes, cess, cross subsidizing other students, and then not being entitled to the minimum the state is promising every child. It might also lead to the radical consequence that the right to education bill looks more like a voucher scheme, but that may not be a bad thing.
But this bill is going to be crucial for India's future in more ways than one can list. Its introduction has been delayed because its financial implications are being worked out. But this delay should be used to discuss the bill thoroughly.