The new Karnataka HC ruling has shaken the roots of the RTE Act, which was meant to provide quality education to all students, but eventually boiled down to the controversy over the 25% allocation of seats in private schools.
The Karnataka HC has clearly stated that this quota, taken over from private schools, is a supplement to government school capacity, not a substitute. This is a game changer, because it puts the pressure for performance back on government schools instead of outsourcing quality to the private sector.
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RTE Intended to Supplement, Not Substitute, Government Schools
When the Right to Education Act came into play, it came in with the hope that every child in India would get the right to decent education.
Reading the clauses it becomes clear that the government seemed to believe that their own schools could not provide either the capacity or the quality, so 25% of private schooling capacity was arrogated to the the EWS.
This received a distinctly binary reaction - there were those that loved it, and those that hated it. Those who realised that private schools in India offer a better chance at education for their children, even if it was limited capacity by lottery welcomed it. Those schools who had never taken any aid from the government hated it - it was their business, and their choice was severely limited by the diktat.
Relief to Private Schools, Rationalisation of Govt Expenditure
The Karnataka HC has restored the primacy of purpose - government schools are there to give an education to all, and that is the very purpose of the RTE Act. There is a perfect match of purpose here, and enrolments should follow. First fill the government schools, and then look elsewhere if there is need for more capacity. If you have more students than government school seats, then look outwards.
This comes as a relief to private school providers, especially those with fee levels higher than the state mandated reimbursement. Across states, this reimbursement has rarely been made on time, and schools have been impacted with their revenues becoming uncertain. This Karnataka ruling gives them precedent, and therefore hope of pushing back against the 25% take over by the state.
The judgement is also a pragmatic one in the context of what is happening to government schools in the state, and the implications for the education budget.
Regardless of whether there are enough students, the state has to maintain basic infrastructure for public education, which costs it almost Rs.1100 cr, and the cost of reimbursing the private sector worked out to an additional Rs. 700 cr., and rising.
This additional expenditure is a burden on the state exchequer solely due to the provisions of the RTE Act. The Karnataka HC, in one stroke has said - enough of that.
Will Govt Schools be Able to Ensure Quality?
Karnataka government schools are in trouble, with low enrolments despite reasonable capacity. With schools with very low enrolments, the cost per child calculation rises dramatically. In any normal business, this would be a reason to shut down, but since education is a public provision, schools continue to operate at under-capacity levels.
Even the introduction of new English medium government schools has not wholly reversed the tide of the exodus from government schools to the private sector.
The latter are perceived to not only offers better education but also economic mobility since most well-paying jobs require at least functional English language speaking skills.
The real question is not really about capacity or cost here. The intent of the RTE Act was to secure a quality education blanket for all students, with some element of choice. In a way, it was a voucher by lottery. The question that now arises in the wake of the judgement is - will government schools be able to provide the quality that is necessary? Or, is this a judgement that condemns the students who were lucky enough to win the RTE lottery back into poor educational standards?
Govt Schools Being Rewarded With Survival Despite Bad Performance Is the Real Problem
In a perfect world, all schools should be equally good, and should compete with each other to gain students because of the quality and diversity of their education. In practice, there seems to be no reason for government schools to exert themselves. Indeed, they are rewarded with survival in the face of rejection by parents, when they had the choice.
And therein lies the crux - neither this judgement, nor the RTE Act itself, nor community and parental pressure has ever pushed the government schools to perform better and compete for students on the basis of their quality.
A few NGO efforts, however grand the philanthropy might be, do not cure the miasma of public education in the country. The ruling may have released a few private schools from bondage, but the core of the issue still remains unresolved. Maybe we should not be surprised. The name of the act promised us the Right to Free and Compulsory education, no promises were made on quality there.
(Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts et al, entitled to use the letters FRSA after her name. Meeta has been the founder of the Centre for Education Strategy, a Delhi based think tank that builds bridges between policy and practice for educators, educationists and Institutions. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)