What is the motivation for your School Choice campaign?
We adopted the School Choice campaign after we noticed the mushrooming of budget private schools, implying that poor parents were ready to spend their hard-earned money to send their children to private schools. They realise that in a knowledge economy, the haves and have not's would be differentiated by the level of their education.
Despite years of effort to improve student enrolment and quality of education in India, there is a huge gap between our policy aspirations and on-the-ground achievements. A two-tier school education system has been created in the process. Those who can afford it, choose private schools and those who cannot, are forced to be confined to state-run schools. Our mission is to erase the line separating the two.
At the core of the School Choice campaign is the initiative to advocate policy reform ideas developed to put parents in charge of schooling their children. The ideas are designed to address the acute problems facing the government education set-up by infusing accountability and efficiency into the system. Our intention is not to annihilate the government schools. All we want is greater accountability.
You advocate school vouchers as part of the campaign. What are the advantages of these vouchers?
We started out four years ago trying to figure out how much money the government spends per child in government schools. No official figures were available. When we did our research, even while taking the official enrolment figures at face value (which are generally fudged), we were surprised by our discovery. The school education system seemed like a black hole where money was being heavily pumped, with no tangible results. With the amount that the government spends per child in cities like Delhi [Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 1,700] the child could be sent to extremely good schools. This reinforced our faith in the project. "Fund students, not schools," became our slogan to the government.
The vouchers provide not just choice to students but also equality of opportunity. With the vouchers, even poor parents have a choice about which school their children go to. If the parent does not like the school, she can take her child along with the voucher to another school. Under the voucher system, money follows the student. Schools — government or private — to get the voucher, have to compete and satisfy the poor parent. Parents decide and parents choose, not government bureaucracies.
Given their performance-based payment system, vouchers encourage competition among schools, thereby helping to improve the quality of education. We are convinced that the voucher system is the best way to improve the quality of education and bring about greater accountability in the public education system.
What is the current status of the campaign?
Today, we have campaigns running in various stages in the five states of Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Orrisa, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The school choice programme has helped Uttarakhand use PPP [public-private partnership] model to mainstream the education of urban deprived children while it has helped Rajasthan to meet supply-demand gaps within the ambit of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
The biggest opposition to the voucher system comes not from the government but by those who view vouchers as a tool to give a free hand to private interest in the educational arena — that is looked upon as a sacred cow. To our surprise, we notice that in many forums we and the government are on one side and several NGOs and other organisations which view vouchers as anti-welfare and anti-government, on the other. The government recognises that there is a problem, but it has its own pressures.