With Punjab passing a law to restrict fees in private schools, it joins a long list of states that have, or are contemplating, this. While Tamil Nadu did this several years ago, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi are in the process of doing this to reduce the burden on parents. With private schools, on average, charging anywhere between five and 10 times what government ones do, it is clear the burden on parents can be large—according to an NSS report, while government schools in urban areas charge `1,747 per year at the higher secondary level, this rose to `8,389 in the case of private schools that got aid from the government and `17,059 for those that didn’t get aid. Add in the fact that a large number of private schools tend to charge extra for books, stationery and uniforms sold through exclusive in-school stores, and the ratio gets worse.
That, however, is just one side of the story. The central government alone, for instance, spent `185,600 crore on primary and secondary school education in FY14; the states spent another `110,000 crore. Distribute this across 16 crore children, and the public-private cost ratio looks a lot less skewed. Most important, of course, is the quality of the teaching which, as yearly ASER reports make clear, is superior in private schools. Which is why, as a recent paper from IZA Institute of Labour Economics highlights, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the total enrolment in government schools fell by 11 million while that in private schools rose by 16 million.
Rather than trying to regulate the fees in private schools, if various state governments are keen to lower the burden on parents, they need to find more innovative ways like, for instance, letting out government school buildings to the private sector in return for certain learning outcomes along with a cap on fees. Recent experiments using machine-learning to boost education outcomes have been quite successful and government schools would do well to embrace them.
Anything that raises the level of teaching in government schools will automatically act as a check on the fee structure in private schools. Indeed, the reason why the UPA government brought in the Right to Education Act with an obligation on private schools to admit a fourth of their students from economically weaker sections was to provide an alternative to badly-run government schools. It would appear, sadly, few states have learned the right lesson and, instead, are intent on stopping better-run private schools from functioning.