Human Development

Understanding school choices under RTE’s 25% mandate

  • Blog Post Date 16 September, 2019
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Ambrish Dongre

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

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Ankur Sarin

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

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Karan Singhal

University of Luxembourg

Section 12(1)(c) of the Right To Education Act mandates non-minority status private schools to reserve at least 25% seats for the disadvantaged and weaker sections of the society. This article analyses the impact of the mandate on changing school choices of relatively disadvantaged households based on a sample of over 1,600 households in urban Ahmedabad. It finds that the mandate expanded choice of schools for the participating eligible households.

Private schooling enrollments in India have increased substantially (Kingdon 2017). Those who attend private schools are likely to belong to more advantaged backgrounds in terms of gender, caste, and other measures of socioeconomic status, raising concerns about exacerbating existing social and economic divisions (Little 2010). Section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education (RTE) Act is an attempt to reduce these inequities in access to private schools.

Section 12(1)(c) mandates that all non-minority status private unaided schools should reserve at least 25% seats for children from socially and economically disadvantaged households at the entry level. Schools are not allowed to refuse any candidate, and admission to oversubscribed schools is decided through a lottery. The schools are supposed to be reimbursed by the state government, either totaling the fees charged by the school or per child expenditure incurred by the state government in public schools, whichever is lower. The burden of school fees is not to be transferred to the beneficiary household, and once admitted, the child can study for free till grade 8.

It is well known that having a school-choice regime doesn’t necessarily improve school choices of the disadvantaged. The benefits of such programmes are found to be context-dependent (Epple, Romano and Urquiola 2017). Being unaware about such a programme/mandate, presence of complicated administrative procedures, lack of relevant information about procedures or schools, lack of guidance about selecting available schools, out-of-pocket expenditures, resistance of private schools, ‘mis-targeting’, that is, non-eligible households securing admissions through the mandate – among other barriers – have deterred eligible households to fully benefit from the school-choice policies (Sarin and Gupta 2014, Namala, Mehendale and Mukhopadhyay 2015, Noronha and Srivastava 2016, Damera 2017, Sarin, Dongre and Wad 2017).

This article analyses impact of the 12(1)(c) mandate (henceforth, the mandate) on changing school choices of relatively disadvantaged households in urban Ahmedabad.

Implementation of 12(1)(c) in Gujarat

The application process for academic year 2015-16 required the households to visit a nearby ‘help centre’ set up in a government school and fill a form with their details and school choices (up to five schools within a specified distance). The application form along with the required documents to prove identity of the parent/guardian, age of the child, place of residence, social category and income, was to be submitted at these centres. The allocation of schools was done by the education office in the district that conducted (physical) lotteries. The results of the allotment were supposed to be sent to the households through SMSs and/or through a letter sent by post. Those allotted a seat were supposed to go to the respective school, present the proof of allotment along with relevant documents and take admission1.

Details of our study

Lack of information about the mandate, and about the admission process was regarded as the main reason for low number of applications in the initial years of the mandate in Ahmedabad. Hence, in February 2015, before the opening up of the application cycle for the academic year 2015-16, a team consisting of the researchers and non-governmental organisations collaborated with the local government, and ran an information campaign. The campaign disseminated information about application procedure to secure admission for children of over 2,000 relatively disadvantaged households in randomly selected areas across urban Ahmedabad (see Milap and Sarin 2016). The researchers, then attempted to track these households and managed to interview over 1,600 households during September-December 2016 – roughly 15 months after they were provided information. Through these interviews, detailed information about their socioeconomic characteristics, schooling choices made in 2015, child and parents’ experience in their interactions with teachers and school authorities, and out-of-pocket expenses, was captured. Those who applied under the mandate were asked additional questions about their experience in accessing application and admission process if they were allotted a seat.

How do we know whether the mandate has changed schooling choices of the households? First, we compare schooling choices of the targeted children and their older siblings (of primary school going age and not eligible to apply) between households that received allotment to those who did not (that is, lottery winners and lottery losers). If the policy indeed removed constraints on choosing ‘different’ (possibly ‘better’) schools, then schools allotted to the winners should be different than their siblings’ schools. On the other hand, we should not find much difference among children and their siblings in the households who lost the lottery.

Secondly, we focus on the households who lost the lottery. We compare schools that they applied to through the mandate to the school currently attended by the targeted child (see Dongre, Sarin and Singhal 2018). We would expect the schools applied to to be ‘different’ from the schools actually attended if the mandate is removing constraint in school choices.


Our findings indicate that the policy enabled households to access schools that they may not have accessed in the absence of the mandate. Lottery winners (those allotted a seat) were more likely to have received allotments in schools that have English as the medium of instruction, were beyond 15 minutes of walking distance, and were more likely to be private, compared to their siblings. No such difference was found between the schools attended by lottery losers and their siblings. Findings are similar when we compare school choices under the mandate of those not allotted a school, to the schools they finally chose to attend. Additionally, the schools applied to are found to charge higher fees, on average, than the schools currently attended by the households. The difference in fees is larger for those households who had government schools as a fallback option.

Thus, to sum up, the evidence suggests that schools accessed through the mandate were more likely to be outside 15 minutes’ walking distance, to have English as a medium of instruction, to be private and to have higher school fees. As these school characteristics are generally associated with privilege, it can be argued that the mandate ‘expanded’ school choices for the participating eligible households.

However, the analysis also reveals several issues surrounding the policy that need attention and deliberation. We find that even among the targeted eligible households, more advantaged households apply and receive an allotment. Those availing benefits belonged to households that were relatively more educated, economically better off, and spoke the local language, suggesting the challenges in navigating the admission process. Further, relatively ‘elite’ schools (those charging high tuition fees) are not found to be in the school choice sets of these households. Almost 90% of the schools applied to charged fees lower than the per child expenditure incurred by the state government in primary schools2. Our experiences working on the implementation of the mandate suggest that fear of being discriminated against in schools, bad experiences during admission process/claiming allotted seats in schools, and concerns of incurring substantial out-of-pocket expenditure could be plausible reasons.

Strengthening the mandate

If the mandate has to achieve its true potential, the government has to make more efforts to reach eligible households and provide them with information. The application procedure should be simplified to ensure the most disadvantaged households are not excluded. While conducting the admission process through an online application system (which a number of states have initiated including Gujarat) helps make the process more transparent and predictable, it also increases the difficulty in application process for disadvantaged households. The administration must keep in mind constraints faced by the most disadvantaged to ensure streamlining processes should not lead to such exclusions (Sarin, Dongre, and Wad 2017).

Finally, the online portal could be utilised to make more information about the schools visible to the applicant. Currently, only the distance of the school from the applicant’s home is shown. One can envisage displaying information about ‘school quality’ including information on learning outcomes, which has proven to be a positive influence on choices (Afridi, Barooah, and Somanathan 2017; Andrabi, Das, and Khwaja 2017).


  1. The system for application and allotment has changed substantially since the 2017-18 admission cycle when the state government implementation shifted to an online system. For details, see Dongre et al. 2017.
  2. The state government of Gujarat spends, on average, Rs.17,000 per annum on each student studying in government schools (Dongre and Kapur 2016).

Further Reading

  • Afridi, Farzana, Bidisha Barooah and Rohini Somanathan (2018), “Improving Learning Outcomes through Information Provision: Experimental Evidence from Indian Villages”, Journal of Development Economics, August.
  • Andrabi, Tahir, Jishnu Das and Asim Ijaz Khwaja (2017), “Report Cards: The Impact of Providing School and Child Test Scores on Educational Markets”, American Economic Review, 107(6): 1535-1563.
  • Damera, Vijay Kumar (2017), ‘Choice for the Poor or Poor Choice?’, Blavatnik School of Government Working Paper Series, Oxford University.
  • Dongre, Ambrish, Ankur Sarin, and Karan Singhal (2018), “Can a Mandate for Inclusion Change School Choices for Disadvantaged Parents? – Evidence from Urban India”, Social Science Research Network (SSRN) Scholarly Paper ID 3308726, Rochester, NY.
  • Dongre, A, I Gupta, A Sarin, K Singhal and N Vernekar (2017), ‘Barriers in accessing applications under RTE quota in Gujarat’, Ideas for India, 30 October 2017.
  • Dongre, Ambrish and Avani Kapur (2016), “Trends in Public Expenditure on Elementary Education in India”, Economic & Political Weekly, 51(39).
  • Epple, Dennis, Richard E Romano and Miguel Urquiola (2017), “School Vouchers: A Survey of the Economics Literature”, Journal of Economic Literature, 55(2): 441-492.
  • Kingdon, Geeta Gandhi (2017), “The Private Schooling Phenomenon in India: A Review”, SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2940602, Rochester, NY.
  • Little, AW (2010), ‘Access to Elementary Education in India: Politics, Policies and Progress, Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE) Pathways to Access, Research Monograph No. 44. Available here.
  • Milap, A and A Sarin (2016), ‘Evaluating the Efficacy of Communication Strategies for Enhancing Policy Take-Up by Beneficiaries in Primary Education: Evidence from a Real-time Field Intervention Ahmedabad district of Gujarat, India’, University of Hong Kong.
  • Namala, Annie, Archana Mehendale and Rahul Mukhopadhyay (2015), “Right to Education and Inclusion in Private Unaided Schools”, Economic & Political Weekly, 50(7).
  • Sarin, A, A Dongre and S Wad (2017), ‘State of the Nation: RTE Section 12(1)(c) 2017’, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad.
  • Sarin, Ankur and Swati Gupta (2014), “Quotas under the Right to Education”, Economic & Political Weekly, 49(38).
  • Srivastava, Prachi and Claire Noronha (2016), “The Myth of Free and Barrier-Free Access: India’s Right to Education Act—Private Schooling Costs and Household Experiences”, Oxford Review of Education, 42(5): 561–578.
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