Formally allowing ‘for-profit' institutions to operate schools will deepen the systemic inequity along economic fault lines.

Section 12 of the Right to Education Act, 2009, which enforces a private-public partnership by reserving 25 per cent seats for the economically backward living in the vicinity of a private school, is a major source of anxiety for these institutions. Private trusts and managements fret about eroding autonomy, while parents in elite schools question the high fees in institutions that have lost the right to exclude. This opposition, driven by the middle class, seeks to defend its privileged and rarefied education system from encroachments, which were the initial trigger for the private school movement in India.

Modelled on the British public schools, the early private schools of the pre-independence era, such as Bishop Cotton School and the Lawrence Schools, educated children of English officers and scions of the most privileged Indian families. Schools aided by the government were intended to produce lettered civil servants. In the decades preceding independence, prominent Indian institutions such as the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the Delhi Public School Society focussed on developing leaders with an Indian ethos. Over the decades, these schools provided free India with its first bureaucrats and administrators.

Post-independence, democracy universalised education, which until then had been a privilege, signalled by increased enrolments across all demographic profiles. The exodus of the middle class from government to private schools that flourished through the 1960s and 1970s was an acknowledgement of a middle class elitism that was clearly discomfited by the blurring class and caste lines in the classroom. Largely controlled by the upper castes, these private schools were avowedly secular but reinforced caste divisions. Established by non-profit organisations mostly in metropolitan areas, they further distanced the rural-urban educational experience. The mushrooming of lower-end “budget” schools in the last two decades, accounting for 60 per cent of urban enrolment growth in primary education between 1986 and 1993, was a market response to the rising clamour for English education from an aspiring, upwardly mobile lower middle class which did not have the means to send its children to more exclusive private schools.

By default, government schools became synonymous with mass education and were increasingly apportioned to the lower castes and Dalits who aspired to be educated. By the 1980s, because of defunding and slackening civic pressure, the system had collapsed and was marked by low teacher morale, high dropout rates, and rampant absenteeism among both students and teachers.

Over the past 30 years, this deep divide between the two systems has fostered two distinctive streams of education and thereby two exclusive educational and life experiences. The alternative private schooling system has contributed to a social transformation by creating an educated middle class that values economic growth but not social cohesion; that acknowledges education as a critical resource but endorses the marginalisation of groups based on financial status; and that has a sense of entitlement but does not actively advocate universalisation of education.

While the continued existence of private schools is an indictment of the government, in that it has failed to respond to the educational needs of its children, it has also legitimated an attitude that allows the privileged to dissociate themselves from the educational needs of the larger society. With all its shortcomings, which have been extensively documented, the RtE should be commended for trying to bridge the chasm by building on the bedrock of inclusion.

The push by the RtE to re-engage with private schools and re-integrate them into the Indian educational mainstream is an acknowledgement that the market cannot be trusted to deliver education with any degree of equity. To bring in additional resources, the 2010-11 Mid-Year Plan Review advocates deletion of the crucial stipulation that only non-profit educational trusts and charities may operate private schools. More recently, some educational trusts are alleged to be fronts for ‘for-profit' organisations that siphon off the profits, ploughing back little into improving infrastructure and teacher expertise. Formally allowing ‘for-profit' institutions to operate schools, even as they enjoy land, tax and infrastructure concessions, will merely legitimise this profiteering and deepen the systemic inequity along economic fault lines. If taken to its logical end, this could well kill the spirit of the RtE and the Directive Principles enshrined in our Constitution. Experience, national and international, tells us that private players in elementary education foster neither inclusiveness nor equity.

Education is a legal, collective and moral entitlement. When the middle class undertakes to share in this responsibility and ends its apathy to mass education, it may have earned the privilege of a private schooling system. In the process, government schools, responding to a more demanding constituency, are more likely to effectively meet the needs of not just the poor and the marginalised but of society at large.

(Hema Ramanathan is Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Scholar, 2011-12, and Associate Professor, University of West Georgia. Her email ID is: hramanat@gmail.com and Parvathy's ID is: parvathy_pb@ hotmail.com)