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School Vouchers are ideal solution for poor

Livemint.com- The Wall Street Journal, 18 Sep 2008
By Jaithirth Rao

I continue with the theme of niti (laws) and nyaya (just outcomes) as propounded by Amartya Sen. His diagnosis of the problems facing the underprivileged children of India apropos of their education is spot on; his suggested solution is quite simply dead wrong. In his recent lecture in Delhi he has referred to the fact that the provisioning of education by the public sector at the primary level has broken down. This breakdown is particularly prevalent in the schools where the poor, the lower castes and first-generation learners constitute the bulk of the enrolment. While there are honourable exceptions, it is an established fact that the majority of teachers in these state schools are more often absent than present. When they do turn up, they are usually late. Having arrived late, they rarely bother to teach and when they teach, they are not concerned about elementary outcomes, e.g. can the students read or count?

Prof. Sen comes up with the novel and eminently impractical suggestion that "dialogue" with the teachers' unions will result in a massive behavioural change on their part. He derives great comfort from meetings that he and his NGO have had with the worthy union leaders in the "advanced" state of West Bengal (a state where education at least is in an "advanced" state of decay). Come, come, Prof. Sen.you are an economist of standing. Do you seriously believe that just because these folks are nice to you during your visits to India, they are going to alter their behaviour when there is no economic incentive whatsoever for them to work hard (will they be paid more, promoted earlier or at least given a Padma Shri if they work diligently...no chance of that) and there is no disincentive for being lazy or absent (their salaries will not be reduced, their promotions will still occur based on seniority, they can never be sacked.this their strong union will ensure)?

I have no experience of the state of affairs in contemporary West Bengal as I have a singular aversion to Stalinism which has been the prevalent ideology in that unfortunate state for three decades now. I am acquainted with schools run by the Brihan Mumbai Nagarpalika (BMC, or Bombay Municipal Corporation, for old time believers in simple English). Some of the teachers are dedicated and conscientious. I even know one teacher in a Gujarati medium section who uses his own slender personal financial resources to help children. But for every one such example, there are twice or thrice as many teachers who for all practical purposes can be categorized as ghost employees. They draw salaries, or someone draws it for them. Beyond that their commitment to their vocation is zilch.

Why not opt for the obvious solution of allowing parents and students to choose on their own which school they will patronize? If the government gave the parents vouchers which could be cashed either in state schools or in private schools, then the poor parents would have the same measure of choice that their affluent fellow-citizens have. I would take a wager that each and every member of Prof. Sen's family in India has sent their children to private schools. Incidentally, 80% of government schoolteachers themselves send their own children to private schools! How can we argue that it is a just outcome in keeping with the spirit of "nyaya " if we condemn poorer citizens to opt for educational services for their children differently from the way we choose for our children?

The "efficiency" argument is even stronger than the moral one. We now have evidence that in Delhi poorer parents who have been given vouchers have largely chosen private schools for their children. Incidentally, for every voucher there were 400-odd applicants giving an indication of how desperately poor parents want "choice". The children were chosen by random lottery in order to confront the argument that private schools do well because they select better students. Initial studies appear heartening. We seem headed for better reading/writing/maths outcomes at one-third the cost of state schools. We have a decent mobile phone offering for Indian citizens because there is choice and competition in mobile telephony. The same rules will apply in education. State schools may even improve once it becomes obvious that parents will opt for other choices, as incidentally has happened with telecom firms BSNL and MTNL.

Prof. Sen: you have rightly identified the enormous failure of the Indian state in educating its citizens. Why not go full hog wearing your moral philosopher's hat and support "choice" for poor Indian parents, a choice that you and I have exercised with our children, which your relatives in India have exercised, which 80% of government school teachers exercise? That would indeed be " nyaya " not the " matsya nyaya " which now in place.

Jaithirth Rao, a former banker and technology entrepreneur, divides his time between Mumbai, Lonavla and Bangalore .

Read the report on Livemint



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