NEW DELHI, India — In a landmark judgment this week, India's Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a law that requires almost all private schools to reserve 25 percent of their seats for poor students.
The decision potentially paves the way for huge changes in primary and secondary school education here.
In a country where a quarter of the population is illiterate and the caste system is still alive and well, the move is lauded by some as an equalizer on par with the decision to desegregate American schools in the 1960s.
“I see this entire process as the beginning of a revolution,” said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer affiliated with an organization called Social Jurists, who says previously fewer than 1 percent of private schools made a sincere effort to admit poor students.
According to a recent survey conducted by Pratham, an NGO, 96.5 percent of Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 are enrolled in schools.
But with private players charging as much as $200 per month compared to less than a dollar in fees at those run by the government, there are vast differences between the schools they attend.
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Though India has more than a million goverment-run schools and only around 250,000 private ones, with rare exceptions only the very poor attend government institutions. The division reinforces a broad socio-economic gap between the haves and have nots. And some argue that the failure to educate the poor threatens to derail India's economic miracle before it really gets rolling.
A recent survey conducted by The Program for International Student Assessment, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) unit that tests students' literacy reading, mathematics, and science, for instance, ranked India's 15-year-olds second from the bottom among some 74 countries.
While the 25-percent quota will be difficult to implement — and some argue that it impinges on the rights of the private schools that have previously refused government aid — the move would see some of the nation's wealthiest students sitting side-by-side with the poorest.
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The Right to Education Act, passed in 2009, guarantees free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. Answering a challenge to the act, the court directed all privately run schools to admit at least 25 percent students from socially and economically depressed families beginning this academic year. Only boarding schools and minority institutions that don't receive government aid are exempt.
The right to education act places “an affirmative burden on all stakeholders in our society,” the court wrote on Thursday, in a 2:1 majority judgment upholding the provision.
High cost of reform
The Supreme Court's move is causing tremors. Parents worry that admission to elite private schools will get even tougher. Schools worry about the administrative and financial burden of admitting more poor children.
But even the most optimistic proponents of the right to education law warn that there are still many hurdles ahead.“The judgment removed the uncertainty about the 25 percent, and we now know where it applies and where it doesn't,” said Parth Shah, president of the New Delhi-based NGO, Center for Civil Society. “The hard work of figuring out the design, implementation, monitoring and assessment now has to be done.”
Already, for instance, private schools have argued that the plan to reimburse them only for the amount charged by the dismally failing government schools will expose them to a huge financial burden. Some are threatening to raise fees for paying parents. And nobody has thought too hard yet about the intricacies of integrating children from such dramatically different circumstances – like bringing poor children who only speak Hindi or Tamil into a school where classes are taught in English.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, where the battle is a little older because the state had earlier tied land grants for private schools to an agreement to take on poor students, streetfighters like Social Jurists' Agarwal have already confronted schools that try to game the system.
Because the rules require schools to admit 25 percent poor students only in the first year, for instance, some schools dramatically reduced the total number of first graders they admitted, and then added double or triple the number of full-tuition students in the second year. Others took a more direct approach, simply offering parents of poor children cash — as much as $4,000 — to pull their kids out of class.
Teaching poor kids about McDonalds
“In India, people have the attitude of 'How can my son sit on the same bench as my driver's son?' That's what's scaring me,” said Anouradha Bakshi of Project Why, a non-profit that runs supplementary afterschool education programs for the poor.
To prove that poor children could excel, Bakshi sent eight slum kids to an elite boarding school. But it took more than the money for tuition to ensure they excelled. She first rented a flat and moved the kids in with her, going the extra mile not only to teach them English but also skills that they'd need to fit in — such as how to eat with a knife and fork and find their way around the menu at McDonalds.
“In one of these uber-rich schools where the child has to go back to his slum or his little house in the evening, it's easier said than done,” said Bakshi. “Who's going to help that little child with homework and hold his hand?”
That's a fair point, and implementation has never been India's strong suit. But even a bad experience at a good private school is likely to be better than the grim reality of the government-run alternative — which is why more and more of the poorest Indians already send their kids to grassroots private schools in the slums that cost a few dollars per month.
“In Delhi, for instance, the schools run by muncipality are really in a bad state,” Bakshi said. “There's practically no teaching. The classes are overcrowded. There are schools with no buildings. Those that have buildings have no bathrooms, or no bathrooms for girls, and the teachers are not interested.”
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In rural areas, students at government schools are lucky if the teacher even shows up.
Yet with private schools already receiving as many as 1,500 applicants for 25 seats in a class, there's also a chance that desegregating the posh institutions will allow the government to continue to shirk its responsibility to the vast majority of parents and children.
“As usual, laws are made without thinking,” said Bakshi. “It's time that we started thinking about these children longterm, not just jumping up and down and saying now these poor children are going to go to these rich schools. Why is the government putting so much money into private schools?”
School choice advocates like the Center for Civil Society's Shah say that the answer is to empower parents and facilitate the building of more private schools. Through a school voucher system, for instance, the government could help to identify qualifying students and give them power to choose the school where they send their kids — creating a financial incentive for schools to teach the poor.
And by streamlining a system that requires some 36 different licenses to open a school in Delhi and creating incentives for banks to finance education startups, the government can help private players bridge the gap between supply and demand.
“All the things we are talking about how to make businesses easier to open and operate can be applied to schools,” Shah said.
Maybe. But if private schools emerge as the backbone of India's education system, this will be the first country where that has happened.