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Tendentious arguments against Right to Education Act

Reservation of seats, Right to Education

It’s the strangest of debates. Private schools are up in arms against the Supreme Court order upholding the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009. What are their objections?

First, non-minority private unaided schools feel they have got a raw deal. They will have to provide free education to 25 per cent of their students, admitted from economically weaker sections, while unaided minority schools have been exempt from this obligation.

Their second grouse is that the reimbursement by the State Government may not be adequate to cover the expenses incurred on a student, and that fee-paying wards will have to cover up the deficit. This argument has won them the support of the middle class.

Their third argument is that students from a poor background will be unable to cope with learning standards and eventually drop out.

And finally, they feel the Government is abdicating its responsibility towards educating the poor.

FLAWED VIEWS

Let’s consider these views one by one. Autonomy to minority institutions has been enshrined under Article 30 of the Constitution. To argue that they should be subject to the RTE obligation would imply pushing for a Constitutional Amendment, which would open up another debate altogether on the privileges of minority institutions.

This would distract us from what RTE is all about – providing everyone a free and decent education till the age of 14. The debate on treatment of minority institutions can wait till another day, after successful implementation of RTE in its present form. The market for education is too large for one privileged group to threaten the business prospects of the rest.

The second argument on the extent of State Government reimbursement cannot be taken as an in-principle objection against RTE, as it can be sorted out by raising the limit of reimbursement to include a range of other expenses. Therefore, the outcry seems disproportionate to the problem.

The third smacks of misplaced goals – prioritising excellence in a few students over raising the skill sets of a larger number. It is easier for a school to harp about 100 per cent ‘pass’ results, when the students are a homogenous group. But a result of, say 90 per cent, in a school with diversity would represent higher quality. Sure, diversity poses a challenge to teachers, but they cannot run away from it. It would enhance the social and emotional intelligence of an individual – isn’t that an important objective of education?

And, as for the view that the Government is turning away from its own schools, it can neither be proved nor disproved at this stage, with the law having been in force for just two years. Government schools have been in bad shape for over two decades, anyway, so why this sudden concern over their neglect? This does not sit well with a tendency to favour Government withdrawal from other social services, such as food distribution. If the Government is deemed unfit to run the PDS and hospitals, why make an exception for schools? This is only to point out the contradiction in the argument, and not to make a case for Government withdrawal.

REAL REASON

So flimsy are the stated arguments against RTE that they do not seem to be the real reasons for the opposition to it. So, what is really behind this antipathy? It is what the middle class will not readily admit – that, to put it crudely, their children will end up going to the same school as their drivers’ or maid-servants’ children. The response is not dissimilar to the anger of the upper castes in North India over the mid-day meals programme.

To understand this urge for segregation, one only needs to look at how private schools came up in the first place. Till about three generations ago, people from all sections were found in one Government school. The school functioned well because the middle class could enforce its rights.

But after the Fifth Pay Commission and the rise in private sector salaries, the middle class gradually pulled its children out of Government schools and put them in ‘respectable’ private schools. Now, private schools are sought-after, while Government schools, which still account for over three-fourth of all school students, are in a shambles as a result of middle class neglect.

With RTE, the wheel has come full circle, with common schooling making a comeback. In a rapidly growing economy, disadvantaged families are no longer willing to settle for dilapidated Government schools. RTE is a political response to the demands of this silent majority.

Business Line, 06 May 2012

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