Karnataka should make free govt schools more attractive
It is hard to read the trend of growing private school enrolment, especially budget private school enrolment, as anything other than poor households putting a premium on the quality of education.
The Karnataka government’s decision to enforce a 30%-cut in tuition fees at private schools for the current academic year (2020-21) in view of the pandemic—the government has also ordered that schools can’t charge any fee other than the tuition fee for the year—is the kind of regulatory approach that has held back education in the country. While the schools say that such fee-restrictions mean that they can’t keep up operations and pay to retain staff, the state government seems to yield to the parents who claim that most private schools have imposed significant pay-cuts or even fired many teachers, apart from doing other cost-cutting. However, the Karnataka government—indeed, all others contemplating similar moves—need to bear in mind that the question is not merely of present costs but of sustaining delivery over the long term. More important, if the government was to invest in improving the quality of education delivery and learning outcomes in its schools as well as ensuring greater access to online/digital among poor households, that would be a more meaningful bulwark against high private-school fees.
Covid-19 and the shutting down of schools has made online education an imperative, though the problem of access, both material (devices, connectivity, content, etc) and in terms of digital literacy/savvy, has raised questions of what this means for students from poor families the bulk of whom would still be in government schools. The recently released ASER 2020 Wave 1—which surveys the school education landscape over the first six months of Covid-19 marred the academic year 2020-21—finds that both government schools and private schools in Karnataka have had their strengths and weaknesses. With higher access to smartphones and other such gadgets, private school students in the state could benefit from online education delivery more, but in terms of access to grade-level texts, overall disbursal of learning materials and assigning of learning activities, the state’s government schools had the lead. So, if the state government were to focus on setting up more schools and easing access to digital/online learning among the poor households in the state, whom a fee-reduction move could benefit, it could offer a serious alternative to households most impacted by out-of-pocket expenditure on education and dispense with the need to control or cap fees. The latter would just kill budget private schools, which some households see as an alternative to government school education.
It is hard to read the trend of growing private school enrolment, especially budget private school enrolment, as anything other than poor households putting a premium on the quality of education. If Karnataka’s government schools are equipped to offer high-quality education with ease of access across offline/online, there is no way many households would choose fee-paying over free education.