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Fund Students, Not Schools

13 July 2007
By Parth J Shah

July 4 was an historic day for India 's first voucher pilot programme, and it did not involve a minister. Kamal , from Gharoli village, became the first voucher child under the Delhi School Voucher Pilot scheme to gain admission to a school of his choice. Kamal shifted from a Nagar Nigam school to a budget private school in his locality. The school, handpicked by Kamal's parents, charges a monthly fee of Rs 250.

Under the voucher pilot, the Centre for Civil Society is awarding 408 vouchers to children from peri-urban areas and resettlement colonies in Delhi and NCR. More than 1,20,000 applications came in for these 408 vouchers. The students were selected through a public lottery by the local ward councilor, which was held in 68 wards. The thousands of parents who did not win gave a petition to the councilor demanding vouchers for their children. This year 408 more students would be able to go to a school of their choice in Delhi .

School vouchers work on the principle of 'Fund students, not schools!' Ideally, the voucher is a coupon offered by the 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 their banks and the government credits the accounts with equivalent money. No money actually changes hands, only the voucher moves from the student, to the school, back to the government.

At the crux of the idea of school vouchers lies a larger vision that demands more accountability from schools, particularly government schools, towards parents. It seeks to empower parents, particularly poor parents, with real choice, and makes sure all children have access to quality education. The choice and competition that would result from vouchers would work to provide universal access and higher quality of education to all.

In the present system, schools are accountable to the government and not to the parents. The voucher system makes schools accountable directly to parents since they now have vouchers in their hands empowering them to reject one school and select another.

Voucher critics always ask whether parents are capable of making the right choice. This question assumes that there is one right choice - which government and educationists know best - for each child. More importantly, this argument suggests that it is alright to rely on a parent to choose the prime minister but not a school. A parent in a voting booth is seen as a hallmark of democracy but the same parent in an education marketplace is viewed as a hapless person falling victim to manipulation and propaganda. The reality is exactly opposite: the cost of choosing a wrong legislator is uncertain and diffused over the whole constituency, while the cost of choosing a wrong school is direct and easily recognizable.

Of course, vouchers won't cure all ills of our education system and there are valid concerns about how they should be implemented in India . These do not take away from their main merit - of a direct and fresh approach to ensuring quality education for all.

The voucher amount could be what the government spends today per student in government schools. City governments, for which some accurate data is available, spend between Rs 800 to 1700 per student per month. This amount would surely get a poor student access to better quality education.

Who must be given the voucher? Think of the most under-served areas or communities in our villages, towns and states. There are very few schools in rural areas but students with vouchers in their hands would attract new schools or encourage existing ones to expand. In a tribal area in Orissa, they are negotiating with a convent school in a nearby city to open a branch, with the cost being covered by vouchers.

In resettlement colonies and growing areas at the periphery of our cities, there are hardly any government schools. Every child of school-going age in these areas should be given a voucher. Either new schools would open up or nearby schools would provide transport service to attract these voucher students. The power of vouchers is not that a few children from poor families would get to go to some elite private schools. It is in attracting elite quality schools to poor neighborhoods.

Where can governments find money for vouchers? Suppose a state government's budget for education was Rs 1,000 cr. last year and this year it is Rs 1,300 cr. The additional Rs 300 cr. could be spent in more innovative ways, one of which could be vouchers.

While the government and educationists mull on these issues, Kamal , his parents and countless others like them are making their choices, even without the government's support.

Read the report on Indian Express



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