Monday, March 11, 2013

Quota for underprivileged in education : Mired in ambiguity

Quota for underprivileged in education : Mired in ambiguity

By Nripendra Misra & Tannu Singh/IBNS

The Right to Education Act, 2009, is a landmark act, but what about its execution which still needs a great deal of detailed home work before we can claim its successful take-off at the ground level? It was in April 2010 that this act was notified but even for the session of 2012-2013 certain sections of the act cannot be implemented due to ambiguities which could have been avoided with timely intervention and joint ownership by both centre and states.

The point under examination is Section 12 of RTE Act which mandates both public and private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children from backward backgrounds. Against this 25% quota the private schools will be subsidised /reimbursed by the State at the rate of average per learner costs in the government schools.

This 25% reservation for underprivileged children takes into account both social and economic backwardness. As per the 2001 census, Scheduled Castes constitute 16.2% and Scheduled Tribes 8.2% of the population. Further, according to the Tendulkar Commission on poverty estimates 37.2% of the population below the poverty line.

Our Supreme Court recently upheld the Constitutional validity of this section which requires schools, both public and private, to give one quarter of their seats to low-income, socially underprivileged children. Two judges of the three-bench panel hearing a challenge by more than 30 petitioners ruled that the law does not violate the constitutional rights of those running private schools. The bench however did make an exemption for private “minority” institutions, like those run by religious groups, saying that the act “infringes on the fundamental freedom” of such schools, and thus left them out of the ambit of this section 12 of the RTE Act.

One of the arguments being offered by private schools against the implementation of the 25% compulsory pro-poor quota is that children from disadvantaged groups and economically-weaker sections will face serious adjustment challenges in an elite setting. However, it is not hard to find instances of un-aided private schools which have successfully addressed this problem of social integration within the classrooms. Nevertheless, given the scenario, the deeper-latent concerns of these private schools over economic implications as well as other ambiguities which have still not been spelt out clearly by the act or the model rules cannot be completely written-off.

The Act is a central one, but for this act to successfully see the light of the day an important pre-requisite is that it is combined with empowering ‘Model Rules,’ the formulation and promulgation of which is the state’s jurisdiction and responsibility.

While the unceasing debate over the 65: 35 finances sharing between the centre and the states towards the implementation of the act still forms a bone of contention; the modality for the economic reimbursements to the private schools due from the state governments against the 25% quota for under-privileged children, which forms an important part of model rules by the state, has still not been clearly worked out for many states, thereby obviously compounding the anxiety of the unaided-private schools.

For the purpose of truly implementing this 25% quota for socially-economically backward children the model rules of the state government needs to seriously ponder over certain very important questions which if not dealt with now, may prove to be serious impediment for the future.

Questions are plenty. Will the state contribute towards other peripheral costs like commuting costs which might be one of the very important concerns besides tuition fees for poor children wanting to enrol with private-unaided school? Will the state share the burden of remedial classes and counselling which might be a necessity given the fact that underprivileged children will start to school straight form Class-I along with other economically better-off students who may already have attended two to three years of schooling? Will these underprivileged kids be deprived of other benefits/assistance that a state/centre chooses to provide socially-economically backward children enrolled in government schools like scholarships, free uniforms, free textbooks, free schoolbags, writing materials, or any other that may be introduced from time to time, simply because they choose to exercise their right under the 25% quota of RTE Act and go to a private school instead of a government school?

How will the government ensure that these children going to private schools under the 25% quota are not left out of the ambit of the mid-day meal which acts not only as an important motivation for school-coming for these poor children, but is also an important intervention tool for fighting hunger and ensuring the nutritional needs of these needy children? Should the Act, especially under this section not provide for proactive mechanisms for psychological counselling facilities within the four-walls of a school which may be easily accessed to address the need for adjustment and social integration for children as well as parents coming from privileged or from under-privileged background?

So far, the experience with the state governments has not been very forth-coming. To take the example of a few economically well-off states, Andhra Pradesh (AP) has put the onus of non-implementation of this 25% quota for the year 2012-2013 on the Centre, saying that it has no funds to reimburse fees for students. As per the reporting in the media, the AP government estimates that nearly Rs.90 crore is needed to admit 25 per cent RTE quota students in Class I in private schools this year, which will increase by Rs.100 crore every year in the next eight years, as the RTE promises free education till Class VIII. Therefore citing financial crunch as the reason, the AP government has gone to the extent of diluting this RTE quota by exempting certain elite schools which are though affiliated with state board but collect huge fees for admissions.

The situation in Gujarat is no different where the private schools are reportedly not admitting under-privileged children under the 25% quota for the session of 2012-2013, as they have still not received any instructions on this from the Gujarat state government. While the state government on its part says that says it is still waiting for a response from the Centre regarding the funds needed to sponsor poor students for free education in private schools.

If the idea of the this 25% quota for children from under-privileged background in all public as well as private schools is to further empower this section of children with choices of better opportunity, then it should not be at the cost of the of other benefits that they are entitled to by the government by the virtue of their coming from economically-socially backward background like mid-day meal.

The states need to be more motivated to take-up the ownership of this Act, only then the real spirit with which this act was conceived by the Centre will be kept alive in the model rules by the states also. Moreover, the long-term implementation of this key act at the ground level through the dynamic involvement of the local bodies cannot be ensured without the proactive initiative and participation of the state governments.

(About the writers: Mr. Nripendra Misra is Director, Public Interest Foundation & Ex- Secretary, Govt. of India & Ex-Chairman, TRAI while Ms. Tannu Singh is Research Associate, Public Interest Foundation. The views expressed in the article are of the authors and not of IBNS)

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