There are some issues in public life where it becomes socially unacceptable to voice misgivings or articulate dissent. The Right to Education Act which was enacted through a Constitution amendment on April 1 — an unfortunate date to notify such a momentous proposal — is one of these. Prefaced by hyperbole, the ‘path-breaking’ and ‘revolutionary’ RTE has been welcomed for making education a statutory obligation for both the state and society. There are expectations that the law will allow every child to enjoy a meaningful childhood, banish child labour and facilitate the emergence of a better quality of citizens in the future.
The objectives are unexceptionable and it is to be hoped that within the next decade, every Indian child will have attended school and completed class 8 at least. The economic spin-off of better human resource will be felt by the country sooner or later.
The issue is not so much the principle of universal schooling but the manner in which it is put into effect. An ambitious and socially desirable scheme such as this necessitates both planning and resources. As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that beyond the stipulation that 25 per cent of seats in all schools — State and private — must be reserved for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the enabling provisions of RTE have not been fully thrashed out.
To some extent that is a blessing. Had the Government linked the implementation process to the Constitution amendment, it is entirely possible that the legislation would have remained stuck in a parliamentary committee. More to the point, by detaching the principle from the process of implementation, there is an implicit recognition that there may be more than one way of arriving at the same goal. If the Constitution amendment is a national consensus, the enabling process is certain to become a part of partisan politics. This has already happened with various State Governments, private schools and minority institutions expressing concern over possible Government high-handedness.
To debunk all the objections as conclusive evidence of ‘vested interests’ trying to subvert a noble objective may be good politics but it is plain wrong. Experience suggests that in a highly over-politicised India, most Government initiatives have a tendency to become instruments of political control and patronage. The RTE may not be an exception to the trend.
At the heart of the problem is the quantum of discretionary powers the state is likely to arrogate to itself. The first issue is the identification of beneficiaries of the 25 per cent non-fee paying students. Will the means test be on economic considerations alone? Will fees for those students whose parents have already got them into schools at tremendous personal cost also be waived or will the scheme only apply to those who seek admission in the coming academic year?
Second, there is the much more complicated issue of the choice of schools. There is a neighbourhood principle which has been prescribed but this discriminates against those who live in neighbourhoods where there are no good schools. Is the choice of schools going to be left entirely to the state or will parents have a say? If, say, a child from a poor family secures admission to a good private school located five km away, will that child be deprived of the fee waiver merely on account of the fact that the model rules stipulate a travelling distance of only three km? In short, must the poor depend entirely on the state for selecting a school and availing of the fee waiver? Will the schools and parents have a say?
Third, there is the vexed question of the quantum of state reimbursement to the schools for the 25 per cent non-fee paying students. This is very relevant because school fees vary tremendously: They could be as modest as Rs 100 each month to Rs 8,000. As for residential schools, the fees vary according to the facilities on offer. Will the state fix an arbitrary sum that will be applicable to all? Or will it fix different slabs that still don’t cover actual costs? The implication of fixing a reimbursement rate that doesn’t cover actual costs is that the parents of the 75 per cent fee-paying students will end up subsidising the other 25 per cent. Apart from being a new stealth tax which will raise fees considerably, this iniquity is bound to create all sorts of complications, particularly the emergence of a class system within schools.
A reason why state-funded grammar schools were cherished in the Britain of another age was that they offered opportunities for social mobility for the working classes through education and interaction with the middle classes. If the RTE accepts this as an associated objective, it would be very welcome. The Prime Minister has said that money will not come in the way of the RTE. If so, the Government must look beyond babu norms.
Many educationists and economists have suggested a voucher system for Government funding. This is not a perfect system but at least it leaves the scope for parental choice, respects the autonomy of schools and is financially equitable. However, a voucher system for the poor involves cutting down the quantum of state interference. It may well be resisted by politicians who view the RTE as an instrument of patronage and another means to increase the size of the bureaucracy.
There are two conflicting principles at stake: Deepening state control and equitable education for all. The Government has to take its pick.