India launches world’s largest school voucher program

The RTE Bill has ignored many essential components of quality education, as has been pointed out by many commentators—lack of focus on learning achievement instead of just inputs, treating schools for the poor (government schools) unequally with the schools of the rich (private schools) in terms of infrastructure requirements and recognition process, and not empowering the School Management Committee to manage school finances and functionaries, to cite just three.

One idea in the Bill that would have the most positive impact is the national school voucher program for students of weaker section and disadvantaged group. This would be the world’s largest school voucher program! The government would pay for 25% of students in all unaided private schools.

There are about 10 million students in class 1 in private schools. About 2.5 million children will get government voucher to attend class 1 in the first year of the program (25 % of 10 million). Each year another 2.5 million children will be added as the first batch moves to class 2. By class 12, there will be 30 million children attending private schools with government support.

This is just the number of students who will receive direct support from the government. The Bill requires schools that are already aided by the government to take students of weaker section in proportion to the amount of government aid divided by the annual recurring expenses of the school.Depending on how these calculations are done, it could add several more million students to the indirect voucher program.

This would indeed be the biggest voucher program in the world. Though the government does not refer to the 25% reservation in private schools as a form of school voucher, but in reality that is exactly what it is.Poor and disadvantaged children will be able to attend private schools and their expenses would be paid by the government. That is what a voucher does.

With the RTE Bill, the government has launched one of the boldest education schemes in the world. To implement it properly and effectively is going to be an equally Herculean challenge. Private schools are most likely to challenge the reservation in the courts. If that fails, they would challenge the amount that the government would pay them for education of the 25% of government sponsored children. The poor and disadvantaged parents would face cultural, social and economic pressures in having their children study with those of the upper classes. These adjustments would have to be properly facilitated. There would be tremendous pressure on local governments to select politically connected for the reserved seats. One cannot rule out a very high possibility of influence peddling and outright corruption as a large number of children would compete for these coveted seats in private schools. They are many such issues to consider, plan for and tackle effectively in making this single part of the Bill workable.

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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.