In spite of serious shortcomings in our education policy, the poorest parents are finding ways to access quality education of their choice. In a phenomenon that is increasingly finding favour among the urban poor, ‘affordable private schools’ are mushrooming in slums and lower class neighbourhoods across the country. Prof James Tooley talks about the impact of these schools on the urban poor, who have ‘already abandoned public education’ – because of its inadequacies and lack of accountability – and are using private schools instead.
When Tooley surveyed North Shahdara slums of New Delhi, where a large number of people live on less than $2 a day, he found that 175 of the 265 schools were under private management and received no government aid. The average fees charged by these schools were approximately $2 – $3 per month. The reason that such schools were successfully thriving, despite almost half not being ‘recognised' by the government, is explained by the comparison of teacher performance. In government schools, Tooley reports that only 38% of teachers were involved in teaching activity compared to around 70% in private unaided schools. Another key finding from the same study is that of learning achievements levels among students. When 3500 students were tested and controlled for a range of background variables, the private school students scored on average 72% higher marks in mathematics, 83% higher in Hindi and 246% higher in English. Satisfaction with school inputs (school buildings, facilities, teacher punctuality) among pupils in private schools was found to be higher than their government school counterparts.
Changing Public Opinions
Despite the fact that a significant proportion of private schools are not officially recognised by the government, the increasing participation of urban poor in such schools defies conventional wisdom. The success of such schools is driving one of India’s fastest growing sectors – school education– demonstrates the triumph of enterprise solutions over bureaucratic inefficiencies in the provision of public goods. There is a growing band of intellectual and influential voices that is now backing large scale changes in education policies to factor in the evolving landscape. In a recent article, renowned economist and Times of India Editor Swaminathan Aiyar suggests that the government provide school vouchers, which are ‘redeemable only for expenses in a government or private school’, to historically disadvantaged and discriminated communities as an affirmative action tool. Columnist and political commentator with the Indian Express, Tavleen Singh has pointed out the inadequacies perpetrated by the government regulatory system that are barricading the access of poor students to quality education. Ms Singh argues that the dearth of good schools in India is due to the ‘license-quota-permit raj’ (regime of bureaucratic licensing) and the unholy alliance between political players and education providers resulting in a basic supply-demand theory being played out in the market of education providers and eager students. Another policy reform idea of providing per-child funding has also been mooted to improve funding in education. At the moment, government funding in education is largely dependent upon the teachers on the payroll rather than the number of students. Madhav Chavan, Chairman of NGO Pratham, has demanded that the government set per-child expenditure norms in the annual budget allocation and assess learning outcomes. However, the government continues to drive the vehicle of failed public policies away from the path of meaningful change.
 To gain government recognition, schools need to undergo a cumbersome, bureaucratic and non-transparent application process for certification akin to ‘education license’ that assesses the essentiality of the school in that neighbourhood