In Economic and Political Weekly (Feb 13, 2010), Sunil Mitra Kumar wonders in an article whether there is a case for school vouchers. His answer is no, of course. His article is long and shows his readings of current academic debate on the issue, including James Tooley’s research, but alas – his premises are too narrow to come to any other conclusion than negative.
Premise 1: National educational systems, and of a size like India’s even more so, are very very complicated and involves so many stakeholders, management levels and professionals so any change of the system must also be systematic.
Premise 2: School vouchers are too small and disparate to change anything at a systemic level.
Ergo: Vouchers are useless for a national education system.

The same premises are used to rule out private schools, especially the unrecognized.
The first reply to this is that Mr. S.M. Kumar knows very little about the scope of private budget schools in India, which would be the target for school vouchers. But he is not alone in his ignorance. The state governments know as little as he does, probably less. No one, apart from Geeta Kingdon, James Tooley, and Prachi Srivastava, knows much about these schools since they are hidden in slums, rural areas, disguised as tuition centres (which they may also function as) etc.
But in spite of that invisibility, 50% of children in metropolitan areas and some 25 % in rural areas – total figure of at least 20 % of all students enrolled in private schooling, recognized and unrecognized – it sure is no little matter taking into account these 40 million students out of 200 in primary education in India. To provide them with better funding would surely be a systemic change. Parents are voting with their feet, exit and our School Choice Campaign are giving them a voice.
Secondly, even if there are only small pilots done with school vouchers, the idea of giving parents a choice can still be taken into account. Just because the scale is small, and tremendously successful, it does not mean that the idea of school choice is bad.
Thirdly, if one only can change a system from a top level, then something must happen at that level that has not happened since 1950 when the Constitution (Art.45) by way of a directive principle promised free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years. This was to be attained within 10 years but the States responsible for implementing the constitutional promise of primary education for all children did not do so for decades.
So research scholar S.M. Kumar at School of Economics, University of East Anglia expects the parents and students of India to wait another half century for a reform that will change the system? He goes on about how hard it is to manage an education system with lots of little private schools and divergent, even Hindu reactionary, values.

Yes it is very hard to plan a market when you don’t know the prices, supply and demand of all goods and services. That is why the Soviet Union collapsed and why the Licence Raj ended (some at least) and why the PSE’s are on their way out in India. The opposite of a monopoly is a market that regulates itself. Education though is very different Kumar maintains but he does not convince anyone that informed parental choice is of no value.

He refers to Saranpangi and Winch’s paper on private schools saying that “indicators’ of quality, not meaning learning outcomes, but parent’s preference of English medium instruction and school infrastructure are irrelevant.
Instead teacher training, timetabling and teaching style should be measured. Of course he does not dare come close to examining learning outcomes in any qualified way other than brushing off Tooley.

Independent minded educationist Vimala Ramachadran does not mince her words which relies on hard fact from the Planning Commission and ASER:

“The recent mid-term review of the Eleventh Five Year Plan takes note of the poor use of funds by many states, lack of relevance, endemic corruption in teacher training, poor teacher and student attendance, and most importantly, very little progress in learning. Worse still, close to half the children who enrol in Class I do not reach Class VIII with a majority dropping out after Class V. More than half the children in Class V cannot read a Class II text, or solve simple Class II arithmetic problems.”
Hindustan Times, 04-03-2010
Our blog post on this ends here but it sure was interesting – and sad too of course – to read how little someone with an academic brain can get out of something as important as private schooling and vouchers while at the same time neglect 40 million students.

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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.