The ideological challenge to public education

Instead of universal quality education for all, the political class accepted and tacitly institutionalised segregation. In fact, the tendency was to hide behind ‘lack of resources’ argument during serious discussions while unhesitatingly holding the public face of a progressive and egalitarian slogan of universal education for all.  

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THE idea of universal and free elementary education was articulated and spelt out with clarity in pre-independence declarations. This was part of the freedom struggle and an essential national goal. Therefore, it found place in the Constitution, back in 1950, as a directive principle of state policy.  Specifically, Article 45, urged state governments to provide free and compulsory education for all children, up to the age of 14, by 1960. 

This remained as part of a scripture, regularly cited and worshipped but totally ignored. We can say this today, since decade after decade this is repeated as platitude in education policy documents, every time assuring that it would be achieved in the next decade. 

We appear to be worse off in each subsequent decade since, with population growth, the accumulated backlog has increased. The same hollow promise is repeated in the education policy documents of 1986 and 1992.

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen wrote in 1995 that by the time the new education policy was announced in 1986-87, less than half of all Indian children had managed to complete five years of primary education. Half dropped out. Together with this, rural children in the age group of 6 to 11, half had never been enrolled in any school. 

Many scholars have pointed out that these promises never had a mandatory and clear action plan. Nor were they backed by allocation of resources. In fact, the tendency was to hide behind ‘lack of resources’ argument during serious discussions while unhesitatingly holding the public face of a progressive and egalitarian slogan of universal education for all.  

Proximate causes

If we look for proximate causes in academic literature, we find that since education was a state subject, the initiative lay with them. A handful of states made education a priority. The rest treated it as tokenism. 

It is also true that many states required substantial central support to achieve this aim. This was not forthcoming until changes in the 1980’s, when education became a concurrent subject. In hindsight, one can say that mechanisms for central support could have been provided with the Kothari Commission Report (1964-66). 

Instead of universal quality education for all, the political class accepted and tacitly institutionalised segregation. Kendriya Vidyalaya and Navodaya schools were well-resourced and staffed for the elite. Local government run schools were for the masses, poorly managed, and under-resourced, often with single teacher primary schools. The most marginalised sections and regions that did not have access to schools, were provided with informal education centres. The promise of universal quality education for all had been turned on its head. 

At a deeper level, scholars have discussed the deep-seated elitism in society stemming from caste prejudice that considers some castes as not worthy of education. Much like the questionable logic of blaming the poor for their poverty, the attitude is portrayed as lower castes not desiring or being serious about education. 

Cavalier attitudes towards child labour and child field workers is indicative of deep-seated prejudice. Even if children attended school, those dropping out were Dalits, girls and the poor in general, with the exception of regions or states that had witnessed Dalit movements and had organized for education, that showed a different trajectory. 

The decline

The neglect of public education in India is probably 70-years old. However, to keep to the contemporary period, we look at a brief history of elementary schools in India, for the 20- year period preceding the pandemic. 

During the period between 1995 and 2015, we found that the share of children attending unaided private schools, at an all India level, increased by 16 per cent. For some states, this shift was as much as 20 to 35 per cent. The most alarming aspect of this shift was the growth of low fee private schools (‘LFPS’) to meet the needs of schooling of the poor, both for urban and rural areas. 

LFPS also encouraged an exit from government schools (‘GS’). Hence, within each state, there are regions of surplus and deficits. However, there is no attempt to reform government school administration. In a detailed study with Sukanya Bose and other NIPFP researchers, we used data from the Unified District Information System for Education (‘UDISE’) and found massive gaps between what is required to fulfil commitments of Right To Education (‘RTE’) and what exists today. 

Also read: School Education Not Equally Accessible For All, Shows UDISE+ Data

The narrative of the surplus story of some pockets captures the imagination so much that regions with huge gaps and deficits have become invisible. This neglect of the public system was clearly aided by encouraging privatisation, either through total deregulation or by looking the other way. 

Impact on equality

By the time Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (‘SSA’) was launched in 2002, the exit of the upper sections of society from government schools had already begun. Thanks to the implementation of the RTE, for the first time in many years, positive incentives appeared to bring marginalised groups to school in a big way, as observed by Manabi Majumdar in a 2009 paper which analysed India’s quest for ‘education for all’.

Infrastructure improvements on a large scale, mid-day-meal scheme, free textbooks and incentives for students, and appointment of new teachers took place. At the all-India level the Gross Enrolment Ratio (‘GER’) for Scheduled Caste (‘SC’) Girls increased from 75.5 in 2000-01 to 116.9 in 2010-11. Similarly, the GER for Scheduled Tribe (‘ST’) girls increased from 73.5 to 118.7 during the same decade, according to a 2017 report by R. Govinda and Mona Sedwal. This had never happened before. Girls, marginalised groups and many of the never-enrolled, were in school. 

However, by the time RTE was finally passed in 2009, the exit of the upper sections of society from government elementary schools had become a reality in many regions. A new vicious cycle had started operating. The composition of students at government schools had changed. They were composed of Other Backward Classes, SC, ST and girls. The teachers largely belonged to the upper caste groups. 

Wherever school functionality dropped, both teachers and students blamed each other for not coming to school. The children would blame the teachers for not taking class, and teachers would blame children for not coming or leaving after the recess. The onus of improving functionality shifted easily to a blame game that constantly reinforced the myth that marginalised communities do not desire education, or worse, that they are incapable of learning. 

A documented example from 2002 is described in detail by A. R. Vasavi, based on research in Khategaon, Madhya Pradesh, on marginalised communities and dysfunctional schools. The school administration contributed to this trend by blaming teachers and not taking any administrative steps. Dysfunctionality in the school system had taken root. 

The structure and responsibility of the education administration to provide viable school teams, delegating power to principals, and ensuring fair distribution of teachers for underserved areas was totally overlooked. The hold of local politics over school administration as the underlying malaise was never discussed or sought to be corrected, as also observed by Francois Leclercq in a 2002 study

The Capital – A case study

The Capital, New Delhi, is a case in point. According to our research with Sukanya Bose and other NIPFP researchers, the growth of private unaided education in Delhi began in the 1980s and picked up in a big way in the 1990s. We found that the “overall percentage of children attending GSs was 68% in 1995-6 in Delhi. This number dropped to 51% in 2014-15 (DISE). In 2014-15, 81% of children attending GSs belonged to the two lowest quintiles of households in Delhi, reflecting the deep-rooted phenomenon of social streaming.”

This would not have happened without the support of various governments. Supporting privatisation is based on the ideology that since the government is unwilling to extend education facilities and start new schools, it should not hamper those private bodies who contribute to access to education. This tacit support then becomes an unofficial administrative social norm.

In the Delhi School Education Act, 1973 (‘Delhi Act’) there are well laid out rules at two levels. There are rules for recognition as a school, and rules to keep education as a non-commercial activity, run by trusts in public interest, even though they may be unaided. 

In the process of the growth of unaided schools, the grant of recognition turned into a flourishing illegal market or, as some scholars put it, as a shadow institutional market. When the private unaided sector functions as a trust, the business plan is straightforward. 

Tuition fees, development charges, annual charges and fixed deposit without interest are used regularly with no legal restrictions. School funds are transferred to the trust pool to create a surplus for expansions, setting up more schools or other institutions, similar to any commercial enterprise. 

Also read: Right to Education in private schools: Can students be forced to pay fees?

Besides these ways, often reflected in formal accounting, there are other avenues to fulfil commercial interests that are difficult to prove. This includes providing lucrative posts for family members, inflating building costs, taking discounts for textbooks and uniforms, renting out premises for coaching etc. The everyday life for most private schools reflects the commercial world. 

Courts and public education

Parallely, education is a strand of law and public interest.  In the matter of Unni Krishnan versus State of Andhra Pradesh (1993), the Supreme Court upheld that school education must be non-commercial. It quoted the Constitution’s directive principles of state policy on this as the moral background. 

It also said that education is a fundamental right and should be seen as an extension of the right to life under Article 21. If education of equal quality for all was to be the constitutional ideal, then the private unaided sector would have to be affordable and non-commercial in principle. Hence, the state must regulate private unaided schools.  

However, the interpretation of law in the Unni Krishnan judgement appears to have little impact on the regulatory responsibilities of the Department of Education (DOE). The DOE’s actions in Delhi appear to, not just to look away, but often encourage expansion by easily granting recognition to these schools, without proper audits. One piece of hard evidence are the detailed interim reports of the 2012 Justice Anil Dev Singh Committee, for review of school fees. 

Hence, we have a situation where the ideal and reality are totally dichotomous. Courts, representing the ideal, stress that private schools are to be non-commercial in nature, while the Education Department openly encourages the commercial sector to flourish, fuelled by an ideology that the government does not have the funds to expand schools. 

How do we cope with this cynicism? A direct way is by approaching the courts to bring unaided schools in line with the UnniKrishnan Judgement. In the matter of Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh versus Government of NCT of Delhi (1997), the petitioner, a parents group, approached the Delhi High Court and filed a Public Interest Litigation on the issue of schools charging unreasonable fees, among others. They won this case but the private school lobby appealed against them to the Supreme Court in the matter of Modern School versus Union of India (2004).  

Before the Supreme Court, the group of unaided schools argued on a moral aspect, that their work was increasing access of the general public to education by creating new schools, and that almost one third of all children were attending unaided private schools in Delhi. They also argued that the trusts were fulfilling the required need for schools, both for the middle class and the poorer communities, and that this initiative in private enterprise leads to an increase in social welfare. 

By extending the above logic they launched a challenge to the principles behind the rules of the Delhi Act. It was contended that the private unaided sector has a right to decide the fees and charges of the school, and that their constitutional freedom under Article 19 (1) (g), to practice a profession or run a business, was being hampered. 

It was posited that commercialization should be accepted and welcomed as a major way to increase the supply. Parents as consumers would then be able to choose schools according to its reputation and affordability. 

Also read: SC agrees to examine whether education is a service within Consumer Protection Act

However, the Supreme Court decided that the school sector must be non-commercial. The state has a purpose to regulate facilities, quality and affordability so that the larger public interest is served. This is how education as a public good is conceived in constitutional terms. 

While the Supreme Court recognized the large commercial sector in education, it stated that the response was not to accept this as a fait accompli but to assert the non-commercial nature of education. Accepting that education is a public good necessitated social safeguards, and even more so as school education has been placed as part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

This is an ideological constitutional affirmation which holds up the public good nature of education and therefore the kind of society that we aspire to be. The Supreme Court said that the DOE had the authority to regulate fees and put a limit to the development charges. It also validated the order of the DOE that restricted schools from transferring surplus funds to the pool account of the trust. 

The directions included keeping accounts as per the accounting conventions for the not-for-profit sector. Any surplus generated was required to be used for the welfare of teachers and the development of the specific school, and not to be treated like profit and transferred to a general pool, like a commercial enterprise. The directions were to be implemented and monitored by the DOE. 

But these victories were fleeting. Even though the private school association lost the case, it did not hamper the continued and vigorous expansion of the sector due to lack of regulation. The reasons for this remain the same. First, the moral argument regarding unaided schools as a social good, and second, the nexus between the political class and the administration. 

The political class is expected to provide protection against regulation by commercial enterprises, including private schools. There’s a close nexus here, as referred to by Atishi (2020) in ‘Public Education: Can it be fixed?’. Therefore, even though the private school association lost this case it did not hamper the continued expansion of the sector. The percentage of students attending private unaided sector schools has gone up from 32 per cent in 1995, to 51 per cent in 2018. 

Shadow sector of private unaided schools 

Along with the growth of private schools, there is now an emergence of a large unregistered or shadow sector among low fee private unaided schools. These schools function till the 5th or 8th standard and have tie-ups with registered unaided schools who either admit them physically or have them represented on paper. 

Further, Delhi government schools accept students from the unrecognised sector once their parents provide an affidavit stating that the child was privately schooled. This way continuity for children can be ensured while keeping the unaided and unregistered schools invisible. The rapid expansion of unrecognised schools indicates this trend. 

Even in a proactive state like Delhi, the accumulated neglect is severe. There has been no increase in the supply of new schools in the urban outskirts that constitute a major segment of unplanned colonies. Increasing classrooms and adding sections to existing schools is required, but the demand far outstrips supply. 

In our 2021 study by Sukanya Bose and other researchers that looked at exit from Delhi government schools, we found that 50 per cent of all students were in private schools. Those attending low fee private schools (‘LFPS’) comprised half the number of private schools students. 

Over the years, despite the rhetoric, the Union Government and states have been under pressure to reduce their wage bill. Regular teachers are not employed and dependency on para-teachers has gone up. The spending on expanding schools and classrooms did increase for a few years, when the SSA was launched but has since then tapered off. 

While the demand for schooling has been increasing, the public supply response has been ignored or delayed by decades with private unaided schools filling this gap. We have moved towards a much more fragmented, multilayered and highly unequal school education sector. 

Right to Education Act 

The introduction of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (‘RTE Act’) has provided impetus for education in the whole country. Private schools must absorb students who are unable to pay fees, and should conform to RTE norms, but the numbers are so large that they cannot be forced beyond a point. There needs to be more public schooling available. Besides, denying a school for any child would imply going against the fundamental right to education.

Also read: Right to Education Act Curtailed by New Education Policy, Experts Say

The inability of the state to provide sufficient and functioning public schools for people has put the courts in a bind. LFPS that don’t conform to the norms of a school are now too big to ban. In the matter of Social Jurist A Civil Rights Group versus Government of NCT of Delhi (2006), the Delhi High Court observed that:  

Though undoubtedly in terms of Sections 18 & 19 (2) of the RTE Act also, after 31st March, 2013 URS cannot in law function but we cannot shut our eyes to the harsh reality, of the children studying therein being left without any school to go to, if a direction for immediate shutting down of the said schools were to be issued.

This is a deep rooted systemic issue built up over the years that has effectively captured the regulatory process and, therefore, works to protect private interests. The intertwined interests between promoters and administration are so deep that any simple process of the executive to correct this neglect is likely to be thwarted. 

Added to this, we now have a sizable and growing section of unrecognised schools in urban areas such as Delhi, that are comfortable in the shadows, outside of any regulatory framework.

Meanwhile, the association of private schools, and advocacy groups that support them, have begun to clamour for substantial changes in the RTE Act. They have argued that the norms and conditions are unreasonable and do not allow private enterprise to grow. With this argument, the group seeks to attack the fundamental clause of schools as being not-for-profit, and their wish to dismantle this framework.

This could then allow corporates to set up chains of schools as business enterprises, both for the middle class and, as they patronisingly state, also “for the bottom of the pyramid”. There’s profit here under the cover of a social cause. It would also allow for coaching companies to directly own schools. 

Many coaching companies now operate either as adjunct to ‘dummy schools’ or as ‘education service providers’ to large elite schools looking to float businesses under their brand. This would remove the distinction between a coaching center and a school, through the process of law. The constitutional idea of education as a public good would have been altered. We are prone to thinking of the courts as a supporter of this ideal but this may not last long. 

It is instructive to look at the arguments by the dissenting judge, Justice Sinha, in the Modern School case, as it represents the pressure on the law for disbanding education as a public good: 

Education, particularly, higher education must be perceived in the light of the idea of an academic degree as a “private good” that benefits the individual rather than a “public good” for society which is now widely accepted. The logic of today’s economics and an ideology of privatisation have contributed to the resurgence of private higher education and the establishing of private institutions where none or very few existed before. 

Hence in his view, in the context where the state is not reaching people who demand education, one needs to look at the provisions of the Delhi Act, which regulates schools in Delhi, in a different way. He adds:  

The statutory scheme of the Act must be considered also from the point of view that a Society running several institutions may have to impart education in different areas; slum, semi urban or urban. It may not, therefore, be improper for an institution to generate some surplus fund from an institution which is situated within a metropolitan area for the purpose of starting a school in a slum or a semi urban area. 

What is required to reverse this trend and provide equitable education to all? As per our study based on UDISE data for schools to be RTE-compliant, India would require an additional outlay of at least 1.2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, at 2015-16 prices, and only the state can do this. It is a totally misplaced idea to think that requirements of mass public education could come from philanthropy.  Private philanthropy cannot solve this.

Public-private partnership (PPP) model 

There are others who argue that the public-private partnership model (‘PPP’) can cover this gap and be the main vehicle for social delivery. In the real context of mass education, the reach of these modes would be insignificant as PPPs do not want to venture outside the cities. 

However, the visibility of some examples would have the ability to capture the imagination and project a so-called correction for government neglect. This is appealing to a section of the population and the larger goals of inequality would be buried in the argument that ‘something is being done’. This model effectively removes the idea of onus from government in terms of public welfare. 

For decades, the willingness of the state to plan and raise money for education has been covered up in the lack of resources argument. However, It is possible to raise the funds required for fulfilling commitments under RTE as was shown by the Tapas Majumdar Committee, which worked out the funds required for implementing RTE. 

Our recent study, with its reasonable assumptions, shows that we require an additional outlay of 1.2 to 1.4 per cent of GDP (2015-16 prices) to cover the gaps. This is based on school-wise UDISE data. Overall, 16 states would require special grants, while others could enhance the budget from their own resources. Resources could be raised and allocated. Even with the additional spending, we would still be within six per cent of GDP for education, as observed in a 2018 article by Sukanya Bose and others. 

The unwillingness of the state has become stronger since upper sections in both urban and rural areas have exited government schools. The lack of funds, teachers, regulation and oversight has led to a stage where public schools are being shut down, as they do not seem to be working, and private schools spring up to partly fill the void. 

In an informal conversation, a chief minister once rhetorically asked a senior official that if he were to fill the gaps of all the teacher posts in the state, almost one third in number, would the education system improve. The willingness in improving governance and the loss of trust in the system by teachers and people are interrelated.

Civil society groups, apart from defending this public good principle at various courts, also need to strengthen the demand for making government schools functional, and increasing the supply. If trust is rebuilt in the system, the voice for expansion of public schools would be amplified. 

Ideological winds of change are not created by reason and facts, often beliefs are stronger than facts. In the case of private schools, there has been a clear attempt in the past two decades to create an atmosphere that believes that private schools are always better; the state does not have resources to fund public education, and that the state would always be unable to run a mass education system in a functional manner. Taken together they create a formidable climate for privatisation. 

The case for education as a public good is still held up by the constitutional judgments. This thread is fragile since state neglect of education is severe, and has accumulated over time. Political initiatives are required if this path of retreat by the state is to be corrected. While we may debate their strategies, the Delhi example is commendable for political focus on education. Would such political energy come from other state governments is an open question. 

[An essay based on collective research with colleagues at National Institute of Public Finance Policy (NIPFP) that included looking at regulation of low cost private schools at Delhi. The author wishes to acknowledge Arvind Krishnaswamy for his help in reformulating this piece.]