The Delhi High Court has pulled up the Centre for having delayed implementation of its 2019 order directing the latter to ensure the ‘economically weaker section (EWS)’ quota of 25% seats in private schools under the Right to Education (RTE) Act is extended till Class XII. On Wednesday, it sought a response from the Centre in a contempt petition filed in the matter; Justice Najmi Waziri, in an oral observation, asked if the government was short of money and if it believed that a child’s right to education ceased post Class VIII. If the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) is any indication, the Centre is unsure if this is what it must do. While the draft NEP had recommended that the “RTE Act will be extended … upwards to include Class 11 and 12”, the NEP 2020 rephrased this as “… RTE Act will be considered for extension upwards to include classes 11 and 12).
The advocates of extending RTE’s EWS reservations upwards point to how private schools have forced students enrolled under the quota to withdraw after completion of Class VIII, effectively ending their access to quality school education. But, if the government were to focus on improving the quality of instruction and learning outcomes in its own schools—ASER findings over the years highlight the gap between government-school students and their peers in private schools—the EWS students would have more options for accessing quality education. And private schools won’t be saddled with onerous asks. Alternatively, the government could better compensate private schools for EWS admissions; it could even give EWS parents adequate tied aid (such as education coupons) to enable private-school access for their wards. Under the RTE Act, state governments must reimburse private schools for EWS admissions, either on the basis of the per-child-expenditure incurred in the government school system or the actual fees charged by the schools, whichever is lower. Bear in mind, this only applies to unaided private schools while government-aided schools are required to enrol a certain number of EWS students for free. The fact that privates schools have claimed unpaid dues running into hundred of crores of rupees—an association representing many private schools in the national capital has approached the Supreme Court for a direction to the Delhi government on this—shows how, despite the intent of the legislation, RTE has become burdensome for the private schools. As Accountability Initiative’s 2014 PAISA study found, the average private school expenditure per student in 20 states (including the former state of Jammu & Kashmir) in 2011-12 stood at Rs 3,147 while that of government schools was Rs 14,356. A 2020 PAISA report found that the per-student expenditure in eight states had risen sharply from 2014-15 levels by 2018-19 (from Rs 38,656 to Rs 59,449 in Himachal Pradesh and from Rs 5,860 to Rs 9,563 in Bihar).
Government-school enrollments across the country have been shrinking over the past few years. So, if private schools deliver better quality education at a cheaper rate, and now cater for a growing chunk of students in the country, the government should facilitate them rather than burden. As per a 2019 Mint report citing the findings of a study by IIM-Ahmedabad researchers discussed in an article in IdeasForIndia, RTE did improve access to private school education for the under-privileged. But, it addresses inequity sub-optimally—target households with better education levels and incomes accessed the quota benefits more as compared with those even worse off. The Centre and the Delhi HC must understand that direct benefits transfer and better governments schools will make RTE redundant.