Human Development

Building an inclusive and high-performing school system

  • Blog Post Date 29 January, 2014
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Karthik Muralidharan

University of California, San Diego

Clause 12 of the Right to Education Act aims to reduce social stratification in education by requiring private schools to reserve one-fourth of their seats for economically weaker students, with the government reimbursing their fee up to a maximum of per-child spending in public schools. This column argues that the RTE Clause 12 is an opportunity to build an inclusive and high-performing school system in India, and outlines an implementation protocol for the Clause.

The growing share of private school enrolment in India has raised concerns about the socio-economic stratification of schooling by ability to pay. Such stratification not only perpetuates inequality over generations, but also threatens the ideal of ‘public schooling’ as a shared space for young citizens at a formative stage of their lives that can foster awareness of, and respect for, the socioeconomic diversity in the country.

A key objective of Clause 12 of the Right to Education (RTE) Act is to reduce this stratification in schooling. It aims to do so by stipulating that all private schools in India reserve 25% of their places for students from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), with the government reimbursing the fees for these students up to the per-child spending in public schools. However, while the inclusiveness goal has been broadly supported, there have also been concerns raised that the provision may lead to a dilution of education quality for students who were in private schools to begin with. Two new pieces of evidence may help to allay these concerns.

First, the Andhra Pradesh School Choice project (described last week) not only featured a lottery at the student-level to allocate the vouchers (which enabled a statistically valid comparison of the relative impact of attending public and private schools), but also featured a village-level lottery to determine which 90 villages (out of 180 eligible villages) would receive the programme. We compare students who started out in private schools in the programme villages (who were exposed to EWS classmates for four years) with those in the control villages (who were not exposed to EWS classmates) and find no evidence of negative spillovers on the test scores of students who were already in private schools.

Second, recent research by Gautam Rao (2013) studies the impact of exposure to EWS peers on the attitudes and behaviour of privileged children in private schools in Delhi. By comparing students in cohorts that were exposed to the EWS provision versus those in immediately older cohorts (who were not), he finds that having poor classmates makes wealthy students more likely to volunteer for charity, more likely to be generous, increases egalitarian preferences, and makes them less likely to discriminate against poor children. While he finds a small negative effect on test scores in English, there are none in Maths and Hindi.

Taken together these results suggest that including EWS students in private schools is likely to improve equality in educational access, at limited or no academic cost to students in private schools, while improving pro-social preferences among wealthy students. Combined with evidence that private schools are slightly more effective at improving learning outcomes (at much lower costs per student), the evidence suggests that RTE Clause 12 may be one of those rare policy opportunities that can increase equity as well as efficiency, and also do so at lower cost than the status quo (since the reimbursements to private schools are capped at the per-child spending in public schools).

However, realising the full potential of RTE Clause 12 will crucially depend on design and implementation details. Some key implementation considerations are listed below:

Regulation of private schools and criteria for recognition

Multiple research studies in India (including by Abhijeet Singh (2013) and Geeta Gandhi Kingdon and Francis Teal (2010)) show that the criteria currently being used to determine recognition of private schools (physical infrastructure, teacher qualifications, and teacher salaries) are not significant predictors of school effectiveness. On average, private schools are able to more than make up for lower formal qualifications of teachers (relative to public schools) with greater time on task, lower teacher absence, greater teaching effort, and significantly smaller pupil-teacher ratios (enabled by lower teacher salaries). Overall, schools (that have to satisfy parents) are in a better position than bureaucrats to decide on the optimal combination of teacher quality and quantity. For instance, it may be optimal to have more qualified subject teachers in higher classes, while supplementing teachers in lower classes with less-qualified teaching assistants to provide more individual attention to younger children.

Evidence suggests that parents actively weigh and evaluate schooling options, and so the focus of regulation should be on empowering parents with the tools to make better informed choices and not on input mandates for schools that are uncorrelated with quality. In particular, it will be counterproductive to shut down schools for not meeting one-size fits all input mandates that are poor predictors of actual school effectiveness. Instead a better approach to regulation would be to require all private schools to meet physical safety norms, and give them full freedom to make operational decisions on input use as they see fit, subject to making full and audited disclosure of all inputs (including teacher qualifications), and student outcomes. However, since public money will be provided to these schools, it may make sense to require a minimum period of successful operation (say three years) before implementing the EWS quota and reimbursement to discourage fly-by-night operators from being eligible for public funds.

Child-tracking system and payment flows

Efficient implementation of RTE Clause 12 will need a simple child-tracking system that can assign a unique identifier (ID) to each child, document their eligibility for the EWS category as per the state’s rules, and verify that a child is only enrolled in one school.

With such a system in place, the government can also ensure prompt payment to schools for the children enrolled under the EWS quota. Field research suggests that in most cases (except perhaps in the most exclusive schools) private schools are more than happy to enroll EWS children if they can be assured prompt and reliable payment of fees. If anything, the schools in our fieldwork in Andhra Pradesh seem to go the extra mile to accommodate the needs of EWS children because they lose the payments associated with these children if they choose to leave the school. Thus, ensuring timely payments will be essential to making sure that the EWS children are valued and integrated into the private schools they attend.

Who should get EWS seats in private schools?

Both theoretical and empirical research suggests that private schools should not be allowed to ‘cherry pick’ the children whose fees will be paid by the government. It is essential that private schools should compete for these students on the basis of their ability to ‘add value’ as opposed to their ability to ‘screen out’ educationally weaker children. One way to do this is to implement a transparent system-level lottery for allocating children to EWS places (see details below).

A simple implementation protocol

Effective implementation of Clause 12 RTE can be done by following a simple three-step procedure.

First, require all private schools to provide audited enrolment and fee data to the concerned local government. This information will determine both the number of places under the EWS quota and the rate of reimbursement. To minimise additional expenditures by EWS parents, the school fees should be all inclusive to the extent possible (including books, uniforms, and all fees) and schools should be responsible for providing books/ uniforms to EWS students.

Second, EWS parents (based on eligibility determined and verified by the government) should rank schools (private and government) as per their preference ordering. A neighbourhood criterion is not needed because in practice, parents strongly prefer schools that are nearby and are likely to prefer these schools in any case. Needing to verify the locations of households will create unnecessary administrative bottlenecks and rent-seeking with no gains on average to either students or schools. Also, given that better schools often set up in richer localities, a neighbourhood criterion might actually reduce opportunities for the poorest children.

Third, the concerned government should conduct a centralised computerised lottery whereby each EWS applicant gets a lottery rank and EWS quota spots in schools are filled as per the precedence ordering established by the lottery rank. Students will be assigned to schools in descending order of their lottery rank, and are assigned to their highest ranked private school that still has open EWS places when their turn arrives (or the highest ranked government school if the private schools they ranked above have filled up their EWS places).

Overall, implementation of RTE Clause 12 should be seen as a ‘system-level’ issue as opposed to a ‘school-level’ compliance issue, and the procedure outlined above provides a transparent way of doing so.

Transforming school education in India through RTE Clause 12

The fundamental challenge in the design of high-performing and inclusive school systems is the following: Public schools are by definition inclusive, and cannot turn away anybody. However, they are plagued by weak governance and accountability, and a poor track record of converting spending to outcomes. Private schools typically have better management and are accountable to parents, but are typically not inclusive because they only admit students with the ability to pay. RTE Clause 12 is a wonderful opportunity to design an education system that can leverage the strengths of both public and private provision while mitigating the weaknesses of the other.

A well-implemented Clause 12 of the RTE has the potential to transform school education in India by: (a) reducing socio-economic stratification in schools, (b) empowering EWS children with more schooling choices and options, (c) increasing pro-social preferences and behaviour among wealthy children, (d) encouraging entry and expansion of higher-quality private schools catering to EWS students (since the government will pay the fees), and (e) forcing government schools to improve their quality since their monopoly power over the ‘captive’ demographic of EWS children who cannot afford to pay private school fees will be reduced. The first three features could contribute to improving equity and social integration, while the last two could contribute to an improvement in quality in both public and private schools.

While the history of education inequality in India is poignantly captured in the parable of Arjuna and Eklavya, there is also the optimistic narrative of Krishna and Sudama studying side by side and forming a lifelong bond of friendship despite their differing economic circumstances. A well-designed and implemented RTE Clause 12 can make an important contribution towards changing the parable that best represents schooling in India.

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