Today is National Education Day, and it seems only fitting to think a bit about the Right to Education (RTE) Act, its promises, and areas for improvement.
The RTE is supposed to be about education and access. According to the Act, all 6-14 year olds should have access to a quality education, paid for by the government, that meets certain government-mandated standards. The Act focuses on ensuring that what is offered to all children is equal in terms of maximum class sizes and minimum infrastructure requirements, the qualifications and training of teachers, curriculum guidelines and places in private schools reserved for the poorest children. Since all kids deserve quality education, the Act tries to ensure that all kids receive the same standard package of inputs.
But stop and think about this for a minute. We are talking about education, which is really all about outcomes. It’s no good if a teacher just tells her students that 2+2=4 (that’s an input); the child needs to actually know that fact, understand what it means, and be able to apply the same principle to 3+4 or 7+1. Children need to leave school able to do math, read and write, speak English, understand basic science, and have some sense of history. And ultimately, they need the tools to get on in life – whether through finding employment, getting into college, or raising their own children. All of these are outcomes.
The RTE is well intentioned, but its focus is in the wrong place. It should look more at outcomes and leave the question of how those are achieved to schools and parents. Teachers have lots of different ways of teaching. Different methods will work better for some kids than for others. Some students will speed through reading but need a lot of help with maths. Some kids will pick up maths without any effort at all, but will struggle to learn history. Any parent of more than one child will understand what I am talking about. Kids are all different. They require different types of discipline, they have different natural abilities, and they learn in different ways.
Why the focus on inputs, then? Uniform inputs applied to a wide diversity of children will yield very mixed outcomes. However, if we focus on outcomes, and empower parents to make decisions about which inputs best suit their children, then we have a real shot of raising standards for all kids.
This is where vouchers could play an extremely helpful role, within the RTE, in bringing about the improved education we all want. India already has one of the world’s most diverse, vibrant private school sectors. There are countless options available: day schools, boarding schools, international schools, religious schools, and budget private schools. There are Montessori and Waldorf-Steiner schools. There are schools offering education in numerous different languages. The options seem nearly endless. And, of course, there are also government schools.
For the wealthy, there is no shortage of choice. For poorer families, however, choice is more limited. Vouchers help to address this inequality. The concept is simple. Rather than directing families to particular schools, the government simply gives each family vouchers, one per child, which can be used to pay the fees of any school. The family takes the voucher to the school to pay the fees, and the school then exchanges that voucher for cash from the government. It leaves responsibility for funding education with the government, but allows more diverse modes of delivery. Even poor parents would suddenly have myriad educational choices available to them.
The RTE already has the 25% reservation, which could easily be implemented through a voucher system. This would give poor parents more say in their children’s education, empowering them to make the choices that are best for their individual children. But they would also preserve equity through ensuring that taxpayer funding was available for all.
Everyone agrees that we want good outcomes for all students. We want them to read and write well, to be able to do math, and to have the skills that will make it possible for them to earn a livelihood. That can best be achieved by empowering parents. As we celebrate National Education Day, let us hope that vouchers can be used to increase the choices and quality of education available to all of India’s children.