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Delhi: Choice debate

Autar Nehru, Education World, January 2010

Although the Right to Free & Compulsory Education (RFCE) legislation is now an Act of Parliament (passed on August 8), technically it isn’t yet law as the gazette notification is still to be issued. The notification is pending because of fine-tuning of funding sources for the Rs.178,000 crore outlay required over the next five years, and framing of guidelines, model rules and regulations. Both these exercises have been completed and sent to the Union cabinet for approval. “The work is almost complete and procedures such as cabinet and Parliament’s approval may take another few months,” says Prof. R. Govinda, vice chancellor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), Delhi, who is on the expert panel which added finishing touches to this historic legislation.

Meanwhile civil society groups and education activists have started deba-ting the nitty-gritty of this watershed legislation enacted for the world’s largest child population. The Centre for Civil Society (CCS, estb. 1997), a Delhi-based think tank which is running a ‘fund the student, not the school’ campaign and supports a student-centric education voucher scheme, organised a national conference last December to discuss the “contentious” ss. 12, 19, 21 & 22 of RFCE, which inter alia mandates reservation of 25 percent of class I capacity in private schools for children of “weaker sections and disadvantaged groups in the neighbourhood”. “When the RTE Act comes into effect there is a fear that nearly 200,000 informal schools countrywide may have to down shutters because s.2 of RFCE mandates that every school should be “recognised” by the local/state government. This is not true; they will get time and oppor-tunity to improve. The thrust of RFCE is not control but trust,” says Govinda.

However Amit Kaushik, former director of elementary education in the Union HRD ministry and currently chief executive of Shri Educare Ltd — an education service company launched by the promoters of Delhi-based corporate SRF Ltd, Arun Bharat Ram and family in 2009 — believes that the challenges posed by the imminent RFCE Act are likely to be “very tricky and complex”.

“The identification of weaker sections and disadvantaged groups in the neighbourhood and integration of children from these groups, besides preparing teachers to teach them given their weak pre-school education and tuition fee subsidisation etc, are likely to prove a big headache for the country’s estimated 75,000 unaided private schools which account for 20-30 percent of enrolment,” warns Kaushik.

Moreover the fate and future of unrecognised low budget private schools whose number Prof. James Tooley, author of The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey of How the World’s Poor are Educating their Children (Penguin Books 2009), estimates in tens of thousands, is exercising educat-ionists in the national capital. At a seminar convened in New Delhi on December 16 by CCS, there was consensus that unrecognised low budget private primary-secondaries sited in urban slums and rural outposts, serve the very useful purpose of provi-ding the poor a low-cost alternative to dysfunctional government schools.

“Anyone who thinks that the current pace of improvement of government schools is adequate should ask themselves where they send, or aspire to send, their own children to school, and then ask themselves how is it morally tenable that the weakest sections of society don’t have a similar choice. About 80 percent of government teachers and 20 percent of village panchs (local government elders) send their children to private schools. The future of not just millions of children, but of our nationhood depends on trans-forming the ideal of ‘universal quality education’ into practice. And leveraging the private sector to achieve this appears to be one of the most attractive options we have,” says Karthik Muralidharan, assistant professor of economics at the University of Cali-fornia, who is involved in several education research projects in India and is a passionate proponent of school choice for the poor.

Quite obviously the imminent enactment of RFCE into law is likely to herald a new beginning, rather than end, of the national debate on meaningful elementary education for all.

Read the story in Education World



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