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No sir, Santa Claus is not real!!- A critique to Anurag Behar’ article ‘Education in India: There’s still hope’

Budget Private Schools, Government run schools

Arvind Ilamaran

Associate, Research

School Choice Campaign

There is one thing I must credit Anurag Behar of Azim Premji Foundation for, it is for his ability to construct lofty narratives from selective facts and biased perspective. His regular Mint column seems to be a crusade against private education instead of presenting neutral perspective based on actual facts. To be fair to him, it is his column. It’s up to him to express what he wants. But what I am writing here is a warning to all the readers who would take the credibility of his position as the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation as a reason to take his views as authentic.

Mr. Behar’s conclusion is that schools driven by profit don’t bother much about education, or about their children. But there is a ray of hope. His ray of hope is that there are few schools among the 10,78,407 (DISE 2011-2012) public schools that have good principals, and that such school leadership would become the norm rather than the exception in the future. Ironically, he draws the stark opposite conclusion for low-cost private schools based on few schools, in his words, “The first anecdote is constructed from experiences in a few schools, and is not about a specific school”.

A ray of hope is an expression used for those who perform well in the face of adversity. And Mr. Behar wants us to believe that it is the government schools that are facing the challenges and not the private. Suffocating regulations, norms and licenses, prevention of for-profit investments in education etc. are just tip of the iceberg in terms of how government has made survival of low-cost private school difficult. Most of these schools arose from effort of individuals pained by the state of education in the country. These individuals were seldom those who could afford to forego pursuit of a well-paying career. If Mr. Behar had visited more low-cost private schools perhaps he would have realized the difficulty with which these schools are being run. Apart from monetary difficulty, even getting good teachers is a Himalayan task given the high minimum wage paid to teachers in public education system. If Mr. Behar thinks that this is not adversity, but it is that where one has to have absolutely no worries about monetary, performance and accountability issues, then I am at a loss of words to describe his intended or unintended malevolence.

According to DISE Flash Statistics 2011-2012: between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the share of government schools to total number has decreased by 1.79% while in the same period it has risen by 1.78% for private schools. There is much truth to the criticism that despite the migration towards private schools as shown by the above data, the absolute learning outcomes are low across the board. This view is concretized by the ASER study also. But the subsequently unasked question is: At what cost? According to a 5 year study conducted by Prof. Karthik Muralidharan in the state of Andhra Pradesh, private schools perform almost the same as public schools in the standardized tests but at nearly 1/3rd the per-child spending by government.

There is no denial that there is a strong public inclination towards private education. While the reasons might be debated, this is not a phenomenon which is neither undesirable nor can be wished away with. And Mr. Behar seems to be concerned more about the ethical standpoint of the school management than the benefits reaped by the society at large. He feels that those that provide education shouldn’t be concerned about profits. His view is typical of those who believe that education is a right and not a service like any other. While we may try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise, education is a service provided either by public or private sector. There is always a cost incurred in such provision. And the best incentive to make best use of resources arises from profit maximization. This is something one would have hoped Mr. Behar would know, given that the foundation he leads receives endowment from is a profit-making company. If one doesn’t aim for profit, one doesn’t have excess money to spend on anything other than mere survival. Without that excess money, charity will not happen and the foundation he leads will not exist. But if despite all this Mr. Behar continues to downplay the potential of private education and the role of profits in delivering the best, all that I can say to him is that – no sir, Santa Claus is not real.

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