“Government schools are failing.” This narrative is repeated time and again in newspapers and public meetings. And indeed, if one talks to the parents of children going to government schools, many repeat these sentiments.
Linked to this narrative of failing government schools are the claims that private schools are different. Some poor people support this claim and would like to send their children to private schools. Many do, sometimes spending almost half of their income on school fees and supplies – for a single child.
However, the ASER report revealed that, if corrected for household characteristics, private schools are not better than government schools. They are not leading to higher learning levels. Why is it then that the people continue to spend a huge chunk of their money on school fees?
Low-fee private schools are often unrecognised, violate basic infrastructure norms and are staffed by untrained, underpaid teachers. High-fee private schools are usually recognised, overfulfil infrastructure norms and have trained teachers. The market mechanism works as intended. More money can buy a better education for the affluent.
What follows is the experience of Anil (name changed), a 38-year-old watchman who works in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He is earning around ₹6,000 monthly in a local NGO which also allows him to sleep in the office. During daytime, he serves tea or does odd office jobs. His family is around two hours away. He does not see them often.
He has two children, one is nine-year-old, the other a two-year-old. The older son is going to a private school which charges ₹1,500 for fees. He spends around an additional ₹500 for things like notebooks, uniforms, etc. So, around ₹2,000 of his ₹6,000 is spent on the elementary school education of a single child. A figure rather unprecedented in any developed country.
Many proponents of privatisation argue that unlike the unresponsive bureaucrats, private school managements are vulnerable to the market: an unsatisfied customer can easily change the school. Anil tells a different story. There are not too many schools to choose from. Often, there is only one private school (if any).
Anil had complained about the dirty bathroom in the school of his son. Like every good parent, he wants a clean bathroom for his child. He was not heard. He gloomed about it. He is used to being pushed around. After all, the school owner belongs to a much different social stratum than himself. He understands pretty well that he has neither the necessary social capital nor the legal knowledge and financial leverage to protest. The school can simply expel his son. But he does not want him to have to go to the dilapidated government school. After all, the private school building looks much prettier.
It is difficult for Anil to assess what happens in the school. After all, a school is an institution he never went to – nor did his wife. He is worried. At night, he often smokes beedis heavily. If he falls ill or the NGO gets into trouble, his son would have to leave the school. Also, his two-year-old will sooner or later also need to go to school. He also cannot manage another fee hike. How is he supposed to pay for all this?
What becomes clear from the story above is that the arguments of the privatisation proponents – the power of the customer, the incentive for private schools to function, the romantic idea of a well-intended edu-entrepreneur running innovative schools in poor, rural areas – are nothing but a great PR stunt. Having recognised that the story above is repeated millions of times throughout India in some variation or another, the privatisation proponents have come up with a new ‘innovation’: vouchers.
We should know better. Looking at history, fundamental changes and victories of social justice have never come about when middle and upper-class people came up with their ‘solutions’ for poor people’s lives. Lives that they often do everything not to cross by gating their homes in closed communities and by discussing their policy blueprints among themselves. It is therefore of little surprise that some of the most vocal proponents of school privatisation are rather unexpected actors: UK-based professors who also happen to be CEOs of private schools in Uttar Pradesh, Silicon Valley billionaires who never went to public schools – the same institutions they are, however, entirely sure of having failed poor children.
They are now joined by innovation-addicted venture capitalists and venture philanthropists who are explaining time and again how small edu-entrepreneurs are revolutionising the Indian urban slum schools by their innovative, technology-based and scalable “solutions”. The issue gains scale when they are encountering politicians and bureaucrats who are solution-addicted.
Not only is there little evidence of their claims, a look into history makes one question how suddenly all the frictions, the decades of denial of fundamental rights, the opposing interests of the poor and the affluent seem to lose meaning. All of a sudden, the plight of the farmers and the hungering for profit of venture capitalists lead to the same obvious solution for segregated and underfunded schools – just let the private market led by the affluent solve “the problem”.
We have a different suggestion – let us ensure that everyone pays a fair share in taxes. Let us close tax havens. Let us hold up the principle of one-person-one-vote instead of embracing one-rupee-one-vote oligarchy. Let us come together and ask the fundamental question: what kind of society do we want to live in? Let us ask then: what schools do we need for this and how can we establish them?
Finally, let’s remember the words spoken by US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall from 40 years ago in Milliken v. Bradley: “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”