By Abir Joshi

Reading between the lines of the 2012 PAISA Report published by Accountability Initiative, it becomes clear that the ideals of decentralized autonomy envisioned by the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution are nowhere close to being realized. A measly 2% of all education related expenditure is provided to School Management Committees, with all major decisions regarding finances, infrastructure, teachers taken at the district or state level.
While total expenditure on education has doubled from Rs. 68,853 crores in 2007-08 to Rs. 147, 059 in 2012-13, learning outcomes have remained flat or are falling. In this context, PAISA rightly raises the question, can our top-down delivery system enable the transition from schooling to learning? Moreover, with the context of the Right to Education Act, an all-encompassing standardized idea of education delivery being imposed on students; can we expect the innovation and leadership required at the school level to increase learning levels in our broken public sector?

First and perhaps most important, the amount of money given to schools directly is simply not substantial enough to affect any change in the last mile of education service delivery. The total sum of grants given to primary schools for school development and maintenance is only around Rs. 10,000 per year. Each teacher receives and additional Rs. 500 per year for learning materials such as charts, reference books, posters and other teaching aids. Such funds are simply not adequate to transform schools into the ecosystems of leanings that will enable any meaningful transformation in education quality. PAISA finds that most of the money “seems to get absorbed in just purchasing essential supplies, leaving little for other activities.” Moreover, 67% of schools spent the majority of money on whitewashing their buildings. While whitewashing may be important, it is doubtful that every school in India needs to repaint its building every year. Keeping in mind the appalling state of learning in public schools, could this money be better spent?

Opponents of decentralization tend to obsess such figures and argue against devolving more power to states and for more centralization (if that is even possible), an argument that is largely counterintuitive. PAISA suggests that schools do the best that they can with the limited means available to them. Whitewashing may not be at the top of the list of schools priorities and most often, they want to invest in infrastructural repairs, fixing drinking water facilities, adding toilets or investing in learning material, however such options are simply not financially viable.
“Whitewashing is an easy, tangible activity to undertake if funds have to be spent quickly and this is perhaps the reason that schools use the money left over from supply purchase for whitewashing.”

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that although the use of this money may be officially autonomous spent by schools, informal power structures in rural India render decision to not be autonomous at all. District, block and state level education bureaucrats often informally instruct schools to whitewash their walls. Buildings are painted for the visit of an important Minister. Officials in closed rooms in state capitals and district headquarters issue straightjacket orders to purchase furniture and cupboards without any regard to the individual’s need of each school. Complains to Panchayat Presidents mostly go unheeded as the District Educational Officer is not legally accountable to Gram Panchayats.

It is impossible to expect local communities to counteract these formal and informal power structures, especially in rural India, without formal capacity training. Across the world increased participation of local communities has only found to improve public service delivery significantly when they have been empowered to take action. A study on Village Education Committees (VECs), a pre-RTE body within local government institutions mandated to monitor education, found that almost 25% of VEC members were not aware that they were on any committee. Additionally, 26% were not aware of their responsibilities and powers. Therefore, community participation alone may not be all-encompassing solution to address implementation challenges.

In Indonesia, increased participation of local residents in community meetings was not found to lead to any improvement in the implementation of road projects in that area. Similarly, in Kenya encouraging school committees to monitor teachers was not found to have any impact on increasing learning outcomes. There was a marked difference however, when the same school committees in Kenya were taught how to effectively monitor schools. By making them aware of their responsibilities and powers to hire para-teachers and monitor grants, learning indicators in local schools improved.

Community action accompanied by appropriate capacity building is the only effective path forward to decentralize our socialist education policymaking process. The PAISA report makes it clear that our centralized system of education is incapable of developing the kind of human capital that is necessary for India to successfully compete in the global knowledge economy. Effective decentralization that empowers school leaders and the local community to make real decisions regarding the finances, development plans, teachers and quality of education delivery in schools is the need of the hour and imperative, if we are to stem the wastage in developing our human resources and enable schooling to become meaningful learning.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.