Sonia’s flawed RTE Act calls for urgent Modi-fication

The horrible tales of failure of Sonia Gandhi’s flawed RTE Act across the country are a matter of daily news now. While much is being talked about its failures today, less has been reported about how the Sonia Gandhi led UPA Government messed up the foundation itself. It messed up with the legal guarantee – Right to Education (RTE) Act – on two counts; its formulation and also in its implementation.

The RTE Act, which came into force in 2010, was celebrated as a landmark step towards enabling the Government in doing its primary job of providing elementary education to all. For the first time, quality norms for a range of issues including infrastructure, teacher education, classroom transactions and assessment were laid down.

When it comes to policy formation, approach of all the Congress Governments since independence has been that of populism, without putting much thought into the feasibility of the project. Hence, they have a history of disasters, when it comes to implementation.

Staying true to its tradition, Congress-led UPA Government didn’t disappoint this time either.

Flaws in the Act and hence its implementation

Confusion over entry point for admissions

Problem – Maharashtra’s education department has scrapped admission to pre-primary under RTE quota, fixing class 1 as the entry point. School managements say they have already completed the admissions from nursery since the past two years when implementation of RTE started, and these children would be promoted to class I, leaving no seats for new admissions. Also, who will pay for teaching those nursery students admitted under the RTE act over last two years.

The Bombay High Court issued a status quo order on the admission procedure earlier this month.

Provision in RTE – Section 12 of the Act states that if a school’s entry-point is pre-primary, then the quota is applicable from that point itself.

Fees not being reimbursed to schools

Problem – Across the country, several associations representing private schools said that the fee of not even a single student under RTE quota had been reimbursed so far. Private schools in Tamil Nadu have threatened not to admit students under RTE quota, if they were not reimbursed, by May 15, the fees of those admitted in the past three years.

Provision in RTE – The fee of the students admitted under RTE quota was to be shared by the State and Central governments.

The Bombay high court on April 28 directed the Maharashtra Government to reimburse all costs incurred by schools in admitting students from the economically weaker sections (EWS) under the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

Confused state of affairs or passing the buck

The arguments below in the above-mentioned Bombay high court hearing will make clear the scale of confusion that exists around the implementation of the law:

On April 28, Additional solicitor general Anil Singh, appearing for the Centre, said that the Centre had not directed the state to admit students to provide compulsory education, and therefore it is not its responsibility to share the financial burden of the state.

Attorney general Sunil Manohar, appearing for the state, said the RTE Act only states that the schools have to admit EWS students and they can recover fees from students. He said the Act says schools must just admit students, and not ask for reimbursements of the costs incurred to do so. He said there was a definite lacunae in the Act.

The court then asked why a section of people would be classified as EWS if they have to pay fees, and where students should go if they can’t pay the fees.

Learning outcomes have declined

The 2013 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) showed that learning outcomes in government schools are not just unacceptably low, but declining, that too in the time since the RTE Act was passed.

Deadlines have passed

The RTE Act had set two deadlines, until March 31, 2013 for infrastructure and March 31, 2015 for teachers to attain minimum qualifications. While the deadline for regularisation of teachers has already passed, India is facing a shortage of over five lakh teachers, according to the RTE forum.”Unfortunately, only 10 percent schools in India presently comply with all the norms and standards of the RTE Act,” said Ambarish Rai, national convenor of the RTE Forum.

Closing schools won’t help

How do you expect the low budget private schools to comply with the infrastructure norms as stated in the RTE Act! According to a report by Centre for Civil Society, since 2010,many State Governments have withdrawn recognition for a number of private schools which fall below the prescribed norms. An estimated 2,500 schools have closed down in different States. The report further says that the budget private schools provide quality education to children at affordable fees. Since compliance with the prescribed norms entails huge investment in infrastructure, these schools are forced to pass on the financial burden to children by hiking the fee. This is in violation of children’s right to education.

Schools declaring minority status

After the Supreme Court ruled that the RTE Act is not applicable to minority schools, many schools have been declaring minority status so that they could be exempted from the RTE Act. A 2014 Hindustan Times report from Chandigarh says, “Thanks to Right to Education Act, 2009, every fourth private school in UT has minority status now.”

A Dainik Bhaskar report from Indore says, “A large number of city schools are scrambling to acquire a minority tag to get out of the Right To Education (RTE) act ambit through appointing members from the minority communities in their board of directors.”

While majority of students in the schools run by these minority institutions are from majority communities, the school authorities at St. Kabir in Chandigarh had declared itself a Sikh minority, Islamia Karimia society school in Indore, whose managing committee is constituted of Muslims, had sought exemption on the similar grounds.

This is a dangerous trend – Communalizing the Right to Education. Even existing minority institutions that did not earlier feel the need to deem themselves as such are now reviewing the same to opt out of the RTE’s rigours. Schools which have been run largely on secular lines are now seeking the minority tag.

Moreover, under Sonia’s RTE, Centre-State accountabilities are not fixed. There is no reliable grievance redressal mechanism. Since 2010, the institutions, meant to facilitate the smooth implementation, have failed at every level.

Right to Education – the much ambitious programme (of the UPA government), which promised to set right wrongs of the past, has not been able to fix even the basics right. With its many failures, it is proving to be a menace.

Gujarat and Rajasthan raise hope

A recent comparative study of the implementation of admissions under the RTE Act by the RTE resource centre at IIM-A showed that Rajasthan and Gujarat are way ahead of other States. In these two states, reimbursements are given dutifully to schools. This ensures that schools are not apathetic towards admissions under the Act. Moreover, uniforms and books are distributed by these State governments, which bring in much-needed clarity on the implementation of the Act.

Sonia’s flawed RTE can yet be made to deliver its goal ifit is suitably Modi-fied by HRD Minister Smriti Irani. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, in 2012, Narendra Modi had amended the RTE Act giving priority to learning outcome over infrastructure requirements. Gujarat allows schools which cannot meet infrastructure requirements because of physical limitations to continue functioning if their students perform consistently well in standardised tests.

Today’s students are the voters of tomorrow and only an educated youth can make an informed decision about whom to vote. In the reasons behind the failure of the RTE, missing political will stands out prominently. Fixing the flaws in Sonia’s RTE calls for urgent Modi-fication and it holds the upside of a potential windfall in 2019.

Read the article on NITI Central website.