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Vouchers can work

Times of India, July 04, 2007
By Parth J Shah

Over the years, India has tried many approaches to improve the quality of public school education. Poor quality government schools have created a two-tier system of school education. Those who can afford, go to private schools and those who cannot, go to government ones.

The main problems that plague our education system today are lack of infrastructure and access. These problems are especially acute in government schools where in spite of money being pumped in there has not been any improvement in either of the two spheres.

School vouchers are a tool to change the way government finances education of the poor. It is a coupon offered by government that covers the cost of education at a school of the student's choice. The schools collect vouchers from students and deposit them with banks. The voucher is then debited from the government.

The current system of public education is based on a top-down model where schools are funded by government. The premise being that these funds would trickle down to the students. However, this has obviously not been happening. The Tooley survey of schools in north Shahdara, Delhi, found that out of a sample of 3,500 children, students in unrecognised private schools scored significantly higher marks on average than government school students in mathematics, Hindi and English. Scores in the recognised private schools were still higher. The disparity in the learning outcomes needs to be accounted for. Government schools are failing in providing even a minimum standard of education to the poor. It is not surprising that so many parents choose to send their wards to private schools instead of sub-standard public ones.

Government should consider funding students directly and help them access an education of their choice. In the present system, schools are accountable to government and not to parents. The voucher system makes schools accountable directly to parents since they now have purchasing power in their hands. In a voucher system, instead of funding schools, government funds students. This model works effectively in the private sector as supported by the PROBE study which states, "Being more accountable, they (private schools) have higher levels of teaching activity... In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance".

The resultant choice and competition would work together to provide universal access and higher quality of education to all. The market dynamics be introduced in the education sector due to the voucher system would push schools to utilise capital better, invest in infrastructure, actively seek to satisfy parents and take better administrative decisions overall.

The crux of the idea of education vouchers lies the ideal that every child should have the right to quality education. Vouchers are a tool to achieve this. Like every new policy idea, the voucher system has its own problems, mainly on the implementation front.

But then this is true for every new policy measure.

Critics of school vouchers say that parents are incapable of making a right choice. This assumes that there is one right choice for each child and that choice is clear to the critic but not likely to be deciphered by the parent.

Critics also revert to the logic that more funding will lead to more access and better quality. Time and again, this wisdom has fallen flat on its face, as has been illustrated by our own public education system.

Although questions like access, information, and social capital are valid, they do not take away from vouchers their main merit - a direct and fresh approach to ensuring quality education for all children. The voucher system is not meant to be a one-in-all solution to problems that plague the education system today. It has to be complemented by increased accountability of the resources spent and sound policy implementation to ensure equal access and reduced government red tape.

The writer is National Coordinator, School Choice Campaign.



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