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Right to Education Act: India's Brown vs. Board?

Blog Post2 min read

The Parliament of India passed a Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2009. One of the key provisions of this Act requires private schools to enroll at least 25% of their students from socially and economically backward groups and not charge them any fee. The state would compensate schools, at least partially, for teaching these students. Many private schools, and parents who send their kids to these schools, are unhappy with this provision of the RTE Act. Schools and parents dislike this forced social and class integration in classrooms.

Private schools in India can be discriminatory in ways that remind you of the American South in 1950s and 1960s. A top private school in Gandhinagar, Gujarat rescinded its admission offer to our maid’s son after they discovered that he lived in the servant’s quarter. My Aunt taught in a school in Delhi that had a separate shift of classes for poor kids to keep them away from their more privileged brethren. These kids got worse teachers and no access to school’s playground, swimming pool, or dining hall. The school even toyed with Newt Gingrich’s idea of hiring some of these poor kids as janitors during the main shift.

I was not surprised when a group of private schools challenged the constitutional validity of the Act in the Supreme Court of India. Last week, however, the Court not only rejected schools’ appeal, but also ordered them to ensure that at least one in four kids in every single classroom is from an underprivileged group. No separate shifts now! This is a momentous decision.

There are about 200 million kids in the 6-14 years age group in India. 95% of them are enrolled in schools. We do not have data on how many of these kids study in private schools. According to Pratham’s Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER 2010), one in four school going kids (26 percent boys and 22 percent girls) in rural India goes to a private school. In some states like Punjab, Haryana, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Kerala, the distribution of kids between government and private schools is almost even, while in Uttar Pradesh—the home state of RICE—43 percent boys and 35 percent girls study in private schools. The share is probably much higher in urban areas because there are more and better private schools in cities and parents have greater ability to pay the school fees. Even if we take the conservative estimate that 25 percent of all school going kids in India (in 6-14 years age group) are in private schools, it means that the 0.24 million private schools of India have a combined student strength of nearly 50 million. The RTE Act has created 12.5 million free seats in private schools for underprivileged kids—a huge opportunity and the number of free seats will only increase as more private schools come up.

I am excited and worried in equal measures. I am excited that many poor parents will now be able to send their kids to better schools. I am excited that the kids from well-off families will share classrooms with the poor. This, I hope, will make them more compassionate and more humane, and bring them closer to the reality of India.

On the other hand, I am worried that government schools will become even worse as they lose their best students (and most resourceful parents) to private schools. I am worried that private schools and state bureaucracies will make every effort to subvert the Act: there will be fake enrolments, poor treatment of the poor kids, and only half-hearted efforts to bring them up to the grade. I am worried that the Act provides for free education only till 14 years of age when most kids are in class 8th or 9th. What afterwards: Punah mushako bhava (back to square one)?

It will be interesting to keep track of the myriad changes--positive and negative--that will result from RTE.


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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