Lakshmi works as a domestic help with a few families in Bengaluru. Her daughter during the academic year 2018-2019 had been admitted to LKG in a private school through the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009, section 12(1)(c). The Act promises 25 percent reservation in private unaided schools for weaker sections and disadvantaged groups.
Lakshmi chose to avail this choice as she felt that in government schools, children are left to themselves and aren’t provided adequate attention. She says that she wants to educate her daughter, and felt private school was the best option.
There are several other parents from marginalised groups who would like to avail free education in private unaided schools, during the academic year 2019-2020. But that might not be a possibility if proposed amendments to the RTE rules, for which the cabinet has given the nod, come through. The proposed amendment gives government schools the priority, and the choice of availing admission in a private unaided school will be applicable only if there are no government schools in the neighbourhood. The Minister for Law and Parliamentary affairs Krishna Byregowda in his brief to the media said that preference to private schools has resulted in the government schools having fewer enrollments.
Criticism from several quarters
“If parents want to send their children to government schools, they will. Why is the government forcing this upon parents ?” asks B N Yogananda (General Secretary, RTE Students and Parents Association). He says the private school lobby who don’t want children from disadvantaged communities to study in their schools, are pushing for this. While there has been the mention of following the Kerala model with these proposed amendments, Yoganand says that the governments schools in Karnataka aren’t at the same level compared to Kerala, and parents in Karnataka aren’t willing to send their children to government schools.
In terms of next steps, the association plans to meet the Principal Secretary (Primary and Secondary Education) and demand that the proposed amendments be withdrawn. If not they plan on staging wide protests, and as a last resort would file a petition in the court.
G Nagasimha Rao ( Director, Child Rights Trust ) and convener of the RTE Task Force highlighted the lack of consultations in the process od changing rules. He says that after the RTE rules have not been reviewed even once after being notified in 2012, and amendments were directly called for. The RTE Task Force in their letter to the Principal Secretary, demands that the plan for the proposed amendments be halted; and recommends consulting civil society organisations working in the field of education, concerned parents and children while formulating recommendation to amend RTE rules. The RTE task force too plans on holding protests if the governments goes ahead with the proposed amendments.
This is not the first time that there have been proposals to amend the RTE rules in Karnataka. In January 2018 similar amendment to the rules were proposed by the Education Department but were rejected after coming under severe opposition.
‘Quality public education is duty of the government’
What the government is proposing isn’t something outside the law, says Niranjan Aradhya (Centre for Child and Law, NLSIU). He says that section 3 of the RTE Act provides fundamental right to free and compulsory education in the neighborhood school, and there is nothing wrong if the state decides to admit children in a government school available in the neighbourhood.
He adds that other options – aided and unaided schools come in when there are no government schools in the neighbourhood. As a member of the committee by Karnataka Development Authority working to strengthen government schools, Niranjan opines that section 3 of the act must be implemented in letter and spirit and several concrete steps are to be taken in order to strengthen state government schools so that they are on par with central government schools.
The average RTE reimbursement for a child stood at Rs 6871 during the year 2017, compared to the maximum ceiling of Rs 11,848 (cost per child in government schools). This indicates that a large section of the private unaided schools charge a low fee, and come under the low fee paying category schools (LFP). While there are several private schools that provide quality education, the same can’t be said about LFPs. Research has pointed to how they even fall short in providing English education, which is one of the reasons parents from marginalised groups are attracted to them in the first place. “LFP schools can’t be thought of as an alternative to government schools,” says Rishikesh Shanker, Associate Professor, Azim Premji University, who advocates for the strengthening of the public education system.
Is better learning levels in private schools a myth?
While the proposed amendment in RTE act is not supported by parents, the idea of prioritising the government schools may not be bad, after all. The parents and several civil society organisations opposing the amendment think that the condition of government schools in Karnataka is abysmal, including the poor learning levels of students. However, available research shows that there is no difference in learning levels between both groups of students.
A study by Azim Premji Foundation between 2008 and 2013 conducted in Andhra Pradesh examines the difference in learning levels of students (randomly selected from government schools) who were provided a scholarship and attended private schools, and students who didn’t receive the scholarship and continued attending government schools.
The private schools who were part of the study had to admit a maximum of 25 percent students from disadvantaged groups, in line with the current 25 percent quota under the RTE. The students were tested at the end of every year for five years on their learning outcomes in Telugu, Mathematics, English and EVS.
The results showed that there was no difference between the learning levels of the different groups of students, and that private schools didn’t add any value to the learning levels of the students from disadvantaged groups who had hitherto been in government schools and had joined them. The author of the paper notes that worldwide research is divided on student achievements after obtaining choice to study in private schools, and currently there is no consensus on this matter.
Amendment may not get legal backing
Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had previously attempted to modify the RTE rules along the same lines that the Education Department of Karnataka has proposed. In a notification by the Department of Elementary Education (Government of Himachal Pradesh) dated June 6th, 2015, guidelines were provided for admission and reimbursement of children under section 12 of the RTE Act.
Under these guidelines the government schools and private unaided schools in the neighborhood would initiate the process of 25 percent reservation in private unaided schools only if the minimum number of students (25) have been filled in the entry standard of the government school. This notification was challenged in the High court in Smt Namikta vs State of HP and others. The grievance of the petitioner was that the notification is contrary to the provisions of section 12(1)(c) of RTE Act which doesn’t contain any inhibition and therefore restricts the scope of the Act.
The High Court struck down the notification stating that the notification creates a hierarchy in availing the benefits under section 12(1)(c), and is being read in a contrary manner where importing” an obligation to admit students from the weaker section and disadvantaged groups only where seats are not available in the state run schools and aided institutions would be to defeat the object of the provisions.” The court concluded that there is no hierarchy in the parent Act and therefore the state government is in violation of the provision of the Act.
A petition regarding similar concerns was raised in the Allahabad High Court in Ajay Kumar Patel vs State of UP where the court stated that a policy of hierarchy can’t be laid down by the government as it is contrary to the Parliamentary Act.