NEW DELHI: It’s the ambition of every parent to send their children to “a good school”. For many it remains the most effective means of climbing up the social and economic ladder. It’s a mark of prestige and possible prosperity for parents to witness their children studying in some of the most reputed schools in the country.

One such parent, Meera Kumar Milan, is frank about what enabled her child to study in a good school. A family of limited means, the Milans’ son Aman is enrolled at the Modern Public School on Barakhamba Road, one of Delhi’s best regarded schools.

“Without the quota mandated for EWS students, there was no possibility of sending him to a decent school. Government and private schools in our locality are no good,” says Milan.

Her perception of Aman’s current school is wholly positive: “The teachers there are hard working, and my interaction with other parents has been good too. I don’t have a single complaint against the school.”

The Milans are beneficiaries of the 2009 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’s mandate to privately owned schools, to admit students from the Economically Weaker Sections and Disadvantaged Groups of society.

Section 12(1)(c) of the law requires “private, unaided” schools to admit children from such communities in Class 1, when they are seven years old. Schools must provide these children with free education up to Class 8.

The expenditure incurred is to be reimbursed by the government, with certain conditions.

According to Indus Action, a policy organisation working on the issue, RTE 12(1)(c) reserves 25% of seats in private schools for children belonging to disadvantaged families.

That adds up to 2.2 million seats across India. Of these, 1.5 million go vacant each year.

The huge discrepancy stems from at least two causes: uneven implementation by different state governments, and opposition or circumvention by private schools.

In Letter and Little Spirit

To put things in perspective, 11 states recently reported that no admissions have taken place at all under the provision. These states are Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Punjab, Tripura, Puducherry and West Bengal.

And five - Goa, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim and Telangana - admitted they hadn’t even issued notifications regarding admissions under this particular clause.

Both forms of inaction are tantamount to a violation of the Act, about to enter its tenth year as law.

On May 31, the Karnataka High Court issued a verdict upholding that state government’s circumvention of the law. It stated that the obligations of Section 12(1)(c) would not apply to private schools if there were government or private, aided schools within the same neighbourhood.

It was noted by Delhi-based lawyer Gautam Bhatia that the High Court’s multiple references to a “burden” on the state exchequer in reimbursing schools might have been a deciding factor in the case, highlighting qualitative disparities between private and public schools.

Opposition from private unaided schools first received national attention in 2012, when the Supreme Court in the case of Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan vs Union of India upheld the constitutionality of the Section 12 of the RTE Act.

Against the former’s claim of autonomy, the apex court held that the government was well within its jurisdiction to impose a 25 percent quota to help realise the state’s obligation to provide free and compulsory elementary education to all children.

The same judgement, however, lifted the obligation from minority unaided private schools. Sniffing a welcome loophole, numerous schools throughout the country have since applied for minority status.

‘Demotivated by the government’s misconduct’

Chandrakant Singh, a Right to Information activist and general secretary of the Private Land Public School Association, spoke with The Citizen about the obstacles to realising this fundamental right of children.

Discussing the situation in Delhi, Singh said “the government is reimbursing to private schools only a fraction of what it spends on its own schools. The Delhi government’s annual school expenditure per student is around ?66,038. But it reimburses schools at the rate of ?26,000.

“This makes the going especially tough for low-budget private schools.”

The government’s delay in releasing funds for reimbursal has also made it difficult for schools to enact the right. Singh alleges that the government’s Directorate of Education “has been delaying reimbursals, sometimes by 15 months, when schools should be getting them at the beginning of the academic session.”

“Such actions of the government only demotivate schools,” he said.

Singh’s association served a legal notice to the Directorate of Education last month, demanding immediate reimbursal of the fees of students admitted under Section 12(1)(c).

‘Private schools will do the right thing’

Curiously, the draft National Education Policy recently released by the central government overlooks violations of the Right to Education Act by state governments and private schools.

It goes one step further to claim that the Act itself is not in tune with the “autonomy” of institutions in determining whom to admit.

With the issue already dealt with by the Supreme Court, one can only speculate why this claim has resurfaced.

Indeed the draft National Education Policy places immense faith in schools privately run for profit. It asserts that such institutions “will do the right thing” when left alone.

But with the NEP itself admitting that private schools are circumventing the law, it’s difficult to say what this good faith is rooted in.

Nor does the draft policy mention state governments’ complicity in ensuring poor implementation. In its almost groundless faith in the morals of private school operators, it conflates faulty implementation with the policy itself. So, it suggests a “review” of this particular section of the RTE Act.

Some fear this is code for scrapping the section altogether – which would effectively deny millions of students the opportunity to get an affordable, quality education.

‘It’s not enough’

Meanwhile, for parents like Meera Kumar Milan, gaining subsidised admission to private schools is only a short respite in the long struggle to educate their child.

Once Aman has completed his secondary education, his parents will have to foot the bill on their own. “You know, the school fees get more expensive with each successive grade. From next year on we’re unsure how we will be able to go on sending him to his current school. We’re already shelling out money on other school related expenses.”

These related expenses are only partially reimbursed by the government. “No matter what the actual costs of books and uniforms, the government will only reimburse ?5000. Aman’s books alone cost ?6000 this year.”

When schools charge for excursions, or give poor instruction requiring tuitions, it only reinforces the money divide. “Aman had to switch from French to Sanskrit last year. We couldn’t afford the cost of his French tuitions. Sanskrit I was familiar with, so I could teach him and save some money,” Milan tells The Citizen.

She also raises a fundamental question. “Agar sarkar sach mein bachon ko padhana chahti hai, to sirf Aatvhi class tak hi kyun padha rahi hai? Aapko bhi pata hai ki sirf Aatvhi class tak padhkar kuch nahi hota.” (If the government truly wants to educate children, why is it only teaching them up to Class 8? Even you know it’s no good studying only up to Class 8.)

According to Milan, restricting the right only to elementary education will have a profound impact on children’s psyche. “Imagine if a child has to downgrade from Modern School to a sub-par government or private school in their locality. Unki kya izzat bachi rahegi apne liye?” – What self-respect will they be left with?

She fears that some children may not be able to handle such a situation. “Of course, there are children that will come to terms with their situation and adjust. But there will be others who sink into depression.”

“I’m telling you, they might even kill themselves.”

For Chandrakant Singh, the RTE Act does little by itself to resolve the wealth divide between the two categories of children and parents, particularly in the “elite” schools.

“The socioeconomic gap between the children is not so glaring in budget private schools. But in the elite ones, and particularly in Delhi, the differences are nothing less than staggering,” he says.

“What adds to the divide is that the lives and the values of only one class is reflected in the school spaces and curriculum.”

The Road Ahead

There is no denying that the implementation of the Right to Education remains ridden with violations and corruption. By limiting itself to elementary education, the Act remains a stopgap policy, only delaying the uncertainties it fails to address.

One wonders whether, instead of subsidising schools run for profit to admit children whose parents cannot pay, the government wouldn’t do better simply to improve its own, affordable schools like the Kendriya Vidyalayas, which are generally well regarded.

Until then, any dilution of the Right to Education Act is bound to restrict the ability of many families to ensure quality schooling for their children.

It’s clear that the problem of ensuring a meaningful, equitable school education is far from resolved. For the government’s draft National Education Policy, which aims at a sweeping overhaul of the country’s education system at all levels, clearly there remains a lot more to be done and discussed.

Pratik Sharma would like to thank Indus Action for their inputs.

Also read ‘Suicides, the Education Racket, and the Beginnings of a New Society’ by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.