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One cheer for Mayawati

13 July 2008
By Gurcharan Das

On July one, 86 lakh children in class one and two began to learn English in government schools of Uttar Pradesh. It fulfilled a long standing demand of parents who believe that they have lost two generations to Hindi chauvinists. They know that a child who learns English by age 10 has a natural advantage for the rest of its life. Shortage of English speakers is one reason why software companies, call centres, export oriented industry has been slow in coming to UP and the caricature of the ‘bhaiya’ persists.

Mayawati’s decision on English was hailed by Dalits, and for good reason. A study in Mumbai shows that among Dalit women, those who learn English rise economically and socially by marrying outside their caste. 31% of Dalit women who knew English had inter-caste marriages compared to 9% who did not know English. This makes sense. Knowing English gives a Dalit woman a chance to work in call centres and other modern jobs where there are fewer caste barriers. Is Mayawati finally realizing that there may be more votes in meeting people’s real needs than in erecting statues to Ambedkar? She has also ordered toilets for girls in 90,000 primary schools.

It must have taken some courage to challenge the teachers’ union and the Hindi establishment. So, why do I offer only a single cheer to Mayawati? I would give her three cheers had she attacked the basic disease of teacher absenteeism. The famous Kremer-Murlidharan report shows that one in four teachers is not present in school, and one in four present is not teaching. As a result, 53.1 % of UP’s children in Class 5 cannot read a Class 2 text, according to ASER surveys. 67.2 % of children in urban UP and 29.1 % in rural UP are now in private schools.

What is the answer? Quite simply, the government should fund students and not schools. When a child reaches age 5, the government should give parents a voucher (like a scholarship), which can only be exchanged for education at a school of the parent’s choice. Since all parents want a good school for their kids, vouchers will create competition among schools. As vouchers will be the only source of a school’s income, and as teachers will be paid salaries only from vouchers, teachers will show up and even teach with inspiration. Teachers will have an incentive to perform. Good teachers will be able to earn more thanks to higher voucher income earned by their school. Teacher morale will thus rise. They will be accountable to parents rather than remote officials in the state capital.

Competition for vouchers will improve both government and private schools. Bad schools will close down, good ones will flourish. The poorest parents will be able to send their child to a quality school. The ability to exit their children from a bad school is hugely empowering—it is like having “voice” in a democracy. The rich have it because of their money power. Vouchers will give them purchasing power and “voice”. A poor child will get the same opportunity as a rich one to rise in the world, and we will progress to our dream of equality of opportunity.

Mayawati used to be a teacher. So, she will appreciate this public-private partnership. Teachers unions will oppose her, of course. She will be scared of losing lakhs of teachers’ votes, but she must remember that she will gain crores of votes of grateful parents. I’m convinced that more and more sensible policies will come from Dalit/OBC leaders who have fewer vested interests to protect (like teachers’ unions).

Read the report on The Times of India



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