This the transcript of the Education in India audio podcast, with Parth Shah, President of the Centre for Civil Society, recorded on June 09, 2014. Parth talks about School Choice and its prospects in India.
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This chat with Parth looks at the idea of school choice and the prospects for it in India The time markers (hh:mm:ss) of each broad topic within the audio podcast is also mentioned below, for those who may want to jump to a specific point in the audio podcast.
Satya: What do you think are the main problems in school education in India today?
Parth: That's a very big question. I think in education there are three key issues in any country. One is access, the second is quality and the third is equity. I think all three in a sense have been the challenges for us too in India. In terms of access, there is pretty good consesus now that we have been able to provide access to most children in India through SSA and many other reforms that the government has brought in.
The key challenge remains of quality and equity. On equity, first we have to address the quality before we can address equity in terms of what will be equitable across various groups. Quality is a bigger challenge just in terms of defining it. So one of the first things we had done was to look at the literature on how do you define quality education. You find that you put five experts in a room and get fifteen different answers! That's when I began to realise that quality is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. There is no absolute standard of quality. Of course, we can agree on many parameters of quality, there's no doubt. But to say this is quality and get everybody to agree is next to impossible. That's why we label our campaign as School Choice Campaign. We decided that choice is the only element that can then define quality. So we define quality through the eyes of the parents and the students. The only way for them to define what is good quality is by making a choice between various options.
As long as we create an ecosystem of education, where every parent has a choice of school, that means choice of pedagogy, curriculum, examination system that schools employ, As long as those choices are available to parents and from the interaction of millions of parents and thousands of schools, we will figure out over time what quality education is. There has to be a bottom up approach to defining quality than something that comes top down.
Satya: So how would you explain school choice to the layman.
Parth: A simple way to put it is choice available to every parent for a school that they think is right for their child. In India, obviously we know most richer parents have had a choice historically. People who are poor usually did not have choice. They only had to go to one type of a school - a government school that was a free school. The idea behind school choice is that every parent and every child should have a choice. Some would be able to exercise that choice through their own resources - so I pay for my child's education. And some require support from society or the state to get that choice.
So the key element of a good education system is parental choice on the one hand and that means an individualised education for every child. If I have a choice of various options, I can customise education to the need of my child to the extent possible. Obviously it will not be as customised as the old times when princes had education where the tutor came to their home and it was customised just for that individual. That is little more expensive to do at this point.
But that is the ideal system where the system is designed in the way that every child is treated as a unique learning and the system actually adapts itself to the uniqueness of that child. Choice becomes a very key ingredient in the design of an ideal system. That's how we define it - a quality education system is one that provides individualised education and that means a choice for the parent and the student. Some who don't have a choice could be supported by general resources to provide them the choice.
Satya: If I am a parent who can afford to pay for sending my own child to a private school, I can do that. I have the choice. If I am a parent who can't afford to do that, how would it work in practice for me. What kind of support would you want the state to provide?
Parth: Today what happens for the parent is that they can go to a government school for free. What we have done is to create a system where those parents who cannot afford to pay for education go to a government school and we fund the government school through general tax revenues.
What it would mean to provide choice is that instead of funding schools, the government would fund students. If I or my child is not able to go to a private school or school of my choice, then I should be able to get support from the government through a voucher that I can take and go to any school that I think would be best for my child. The basic idea is to change the financing system of public or state education. Today it is done through one single channel where the money goes to schools and the schools then provide edcuation to whoever comes. Choice will mean that the money goes to the child or the parent and they decide which school they would go and money would follow the child to the school they would choose. Therefore you allow this element of choice. The counterside of that is also accountability. Once parents have choice, schools become more accountable to the parent. I have the power now, even though I may not have resources of my own, but through the voucher given by the government to say that the school is not perfomring well and therefore I will go to to a better school.
Satya: So if there is school choice being implemented, as a parent, what would I need to do.
Parth: You would have to understand what are the options available to you in the marketplace of education - which options are more suitable for your child. Once you determine that, you can either pay for it yourself or get a voucher to pay through government support.
Satya: If there is a good school and I want to send my child to that school and if there are so many parents who all want to send their children to the same school, because that is a good school. How would that work?
Parth: There is a huge issue of scarcity of good schools. It is suprising when you think of it. Here you have parents who are willing to pay for it. Even then they cannot get a seat in a school they consider to be a good school. There are larger systemic reasons for this scarcity which is an artifical scarcity that exists in India. That should bring a discussion on the regulatory system we have. A study we did quite some time ago pointed out that you need about 36 licenses to open a school in Delhi and each license would have its own price. If you add up this cost, it becomes obvious that not everyone can open a school. Unless you have the resources and connections, only then can you open a school. You see that quite clearly why politicians run our schools and colleges, because they are the ones who have access to those licneses and thereby are able to run those schols and colleges. You and I cannot. There is a larger issue of regulation which has created artifical choice. One part is the regulatory license raj that we have. The second component is the requirement of schools being non-profits. What it means is that if I don't have resources to start my own school, it is almost impossible to get the resources from other sources.
Think about that. If I have a good idea for an IT company, I can go to angel investors or VC firms or individuals and get investment in my idea to try out my idea. But if I am a great teacher, a great principal or a great school leader, I have no place to go to raise that kind of capital to build and run a school. So the requirement of non-profit has limited who can start and run a school in India. Therefore you see only richer families in a sense are able to run schools under their names. So opening up education for profit would be one way to also address the issue of scarcity.
Satya: If School Choice had to be implemented, what are the policy changes that you think would need to be made?
Parth: I think the first policy would be to change the regulatory system. Open up the supply. Do not create hurdles in the path of education entrepreneurs who can serve the cause of education in the country. One thing would be to make sure that there are no supply bottlenecks in the system and that requires policy reforms to achieve that as discussed a little earlier.
The second big component is the funding of schools through the government. The model we have is funding government schools. Instead of that, the money should go to the child and the family. The forumula that I would use is fund students, not schools. So government schools would get funding not as a lump sum grant from the government, but by attracting students to the schools with each student bringing money on a per student basis from the government. So convert the government funding into per student funding. So if I have 1000 kids in my government school, I get 1000 times X amount as an annual grant from which I run my school - I pay my teacher salaries, pay for non-teaching staff, anything else I need for the laboratory, library, playground or boundary walls, all of that money would come from the grant I would get on a per student basis. That brings an element of accountability in the system. First you would know exactly how many kids are in each of the schools which we today do not know. Secondly it would mean that if I lose my students, students are not coming to my school and going somewhere else, I would also lose my funding. That means it will be difficult for me to pay for teacher salaries and meet expenses for running the school. So therefore there is a tremendous incentive for principals and teachers to make sure they do at least as good a job to attract enough number of students every year to the school. They cannot take it for granted that students would come to their school because it is free education. By changing the system to per-student funding formula, you bring about lot more transparency and more importantly accountability in the system.
Satya: You talked about scarcity of schools, if you take a large city like Delhi or Chennai or Bangalore or so on, there's scarcity of land for setting up new schools. There are many more schools required in these highly concentrated urban areas, but land is very expensive. So how would the school choice campaign work, when you need lot more schools, but you find it difficult to find the land to set up the new schools?
Parth: What you see in many of the cities, not just metros, but also second tier towns, is that schools are coming up in high rise buildings, because land is expensive. So one way to economise on land is to go vertical. It is hard to imagine, say 20 years ago that there would be a four storey school, but now it is becoming more common place. That's one way to deal with the issue of scarcity of land. That does create the problem in terms of playground facilities and other things that children would need, since schools won't be able to afford playgrounds individually. There are ways in which we can deal with this issue. Many cities have found even for government schools that don't have playgrounds, the governments are actually using local community parks and giving access to those parks for fixed hours per week to be used as a playground. So existing school playgrounds can be shared across multiple schools so there is a more efficient use of that land. You can use local community spaces for sports.
Satya: That would require a policy change that would be required to allow use of shared resources.
Parth: It is already becoming a viable idea in some cities. In Delhi, government has already allowed, even as part of RTE, local community parks to be used as a plaground for the school.
Satya: You talked about the fact that there is a problem for people to invest in setting up the school because you can't raise money if you are a non-profit. What would be the incentive for someone to set up a new school if school choice is implemented? You have to invest a lot of money and you are not sure that the school that you run would be successful enough that you could first of all make ends meet every year - you can't make a profit in any case since for-profit schools are not allowed. So how would you see this problem of lack of incentive for anyone to even set up new schools.
Parth: I think if you talk to investors and particularly real estate companies, many of them are getting into the "education business" largely because that is the most profitable thing you can do. The rate of return on your investment is one of the highest in education.
Satya: But that is provided you actually operate in a grey area because technically you are not supposed to be for-profit. So you have to find various workarounds which may be legal, or not. So would you say that if school choice had to be implemented, then for-profit schools have to be allowed for school choice to work.
Parth: We have seen few countries where there is school choice, not to the full extent, but to a large extent. They don't really have a larger market for for-profit schools. So historically education has been a non-profit activity. If you look at any country for that matter, even in those countries that co allow legally, for-profit schools, most schools are actually non-profit. In the U.S. for example, it is possible to have for-profit schools legally, but most schools are government schools and are non-profit. So I think there is this tremendous bias in favour of non-profit. Similarly, if we were to open up Indian education system for-profit, I don't think everyone will become for-profit overnight. I think what for-profit does is to make a difference at the margin. There are many who would be willing to invest as a non-profit activity as long as they can earn enough to become a self-sustaining school or trust or society. Then they are happy to invest that kind of money without having to extract any profit for themselves. But at the margin, you will attract many more people, talent and capital to the sector if you open up for-profit. So I think it is important to allow for-profit education as part of the larger reform of education. But I don't think the school choice idea would be dependent on opening up for-profit education.
Satya: If you have school choice, there will be situations where schools could decide whether to take in students or not based on how well students are already performing. Schools would want to pick students who are already performing well, so they could show that their test scores or learning levels or outcomes are better because they are getting better students in. How would you avoid that kind of situation.
Parth: There are two ways of thinking about it. One, if you trust parents and schools to do the right thing, then you can let the choice be made by parents and schools.
Satya: Should schools be allowed to reject a student?
Parth: When you take in a child at pre-KG, KG or grade 1 in my school, the child is 3-5 year old, what kind of test can you possibly conduct to test if the child is an Einstein or not? That is almost impossible. So lot of selection is based on family backgrounds.
I think in most part of our lives, we do allow that kind of separation. We don't expect that someone will be able to walk into a 5 star restaurant and be able to eat there even if they can't afford to pay for it. I think we accept that kind of separation or role that selection plays in the larger society. So I don't really see a particular problem in allowing that to happen. You hardly ever see a school that has chosen a student in Grade 1 and being thrown out by Grade 5 because they didn't perform according to the school standards. That is not a very common phenomenon.
Satya: But at grade 1, if schools tend to choose students coming from better income households or non-first generation households so they know that there will be lot more support at home, wouldn't there be a kind stratification where certain schools will have a homogeneous group of people from one kind of background or income level or demographic and other schools will have a different cohort of students.
Parth: There are two ways of thinking about it. Take an example of any college. Say, Harvard or MIT in the U.S. They are private bodies and are free to choose anyone as incoming students. They could choose students only from rich families. But you don't really see that happening. They also realise that the diversity of the student body is in itself a value in terms of what students would learn at the college and how much they would contribute to the college when they graduate. The understanding that having very homogeneous populations either in a company or college is not serving their own purpose is quite commonplace. This is why you don't really see companies with only brahmins working there and no one else. Even though they are perfectly free to do so. Infosys can hire or reject anyone they want. You don't really see that only one kind of people are working in that company and no one else. Where we have allowed these choices, we have not seen this kind of absurd discrimination in favour or against particular groups of people in the private sector. There is no reason to think schools are somehow different from other entities in the marketplace.
Second, if you make the school education space far more competitive by reforms that we talked about on the supply side and the demand side, you will see that there will be schools coming up to cater to people that are not catered to by others. Which is how the market works. So if I am a customer rejected by Vodafone because I don't have enough income, for e.g., then there will be a company that will come up to take me as a low income customer. You can see that market serves all customers irrespective of their capacity to pay or not, as long as they pay what you can afford for it.
If the government converts the funding to per student funding and gives a voucher, then every parent either rich or poor will have the capacity to pay for their own child's education either through their own money or through public funds. The market has to develop in a way that you would not feel or see that there are groups of people who are permanently discriminated by the system. It may happen temporarily, but it won't last for too long.
Satya: But would you let the market sort itself out over time, how ever long that takes or do you think there should be regulation to prevent this kind of stratification? Because if you look at most schools today, they are largely segmented by income levels. The fee level is self-selecting the kinds of people going to different kinds of schools. Very high fee schools provide lots of facilities and good teachers and so on, but only people who can afford that kind of fee would be able to send their children to that school. A budget private school on the other hand would only be able to take in those who are able to afford a much lower level of fee. So stratification is already there. So is this something that you would let the market sort out or do you think there should be regulation by the government ot ensure that there is a lot more of social mixing of different kinds of students. For instance, schools can be prevented from rejecting anybody. Or you could have a lottery system where schools pick students based not on any criteria but at random.
Parth: I think there are quite a few countries that have tried the lottery system. In principle, I am not opposed to it. My sense is that schools themselves would figure out a way as it becomes possible for them to accept or reject particular parents or students. How to create a mixed population within the school. Today you don't see that much largely because the scarcity of schools is so high that schools can in a sense dictate terms to their customers, in this case parents and students. They really don't really have much of a choice. Therefore, schools can get away with discriminatory behaviour. If you imagine a system where you have removed those hurdles and it becomes more of a competitive marketplace as it should normally be, you will see far less discrimination in the school system. There will be lot more emphasis, just like you see in many campuses abroad, to diversify student population, to attract different kinds of people, different kinds of faculty, to make it a more attractive, vibrant environment for people to come. In India we have not gotten that far, not because somehow Indians are far more discriminatory or we are inherently caste-minded or class-minded and therefore we never see beyond caste or class. It is just that the system we have built allows that kind of discrimination to happen at no cost to schools. The cost is all borne by parents and students. But when the cost is also transferred to the schools, they will think very differently than they currently do.
Satya: Even in the rural areas, where caste and class - there are a lot more in socialising, do you think the market will be able to sort it out?
Parth: I think schools, as many people have pointed out, are not really distinct from larger society. So whatever forces are going to be there in larger society are going to play a role within schools. You can see even today, even in government schools, which are not supposed to reject any student, they take every student that comes to the school just like the formula we are proposing, even there there is a huge amount of discrimination. The teachers usually come from higher castes and the students are from the lower castes and you see that battle playing out even in schools which are not allowed to discriminate at least in terms of admission. I think just by putting regulations on admission policy, you are not going to correct the century old prejudices we have. I think there are better means of dealing with that than asking schools to bear the burden of larger social challenge.
Satya: You are talking about choices to be made by parents. If the parents have to make informed choices, then the parents must have access to information that would help them make that choice. But today then there is very little information available about what exactly a school does, what kinds of learning outcomes they deliver, what are the kinds of alternatives that are out there and how do they compare against each other. So how would parents be able to make informed choices. What needs to be done to help them make informed choices, if school choice has to be implemened.
Parth: I think one thing is very clear. Schools have to be far more accountable and transparent about what they do. Either as part of the current system that we have schools run by trusts or societies, or section 25 companies, should be required to disclose a lot more information than they currently do. How do we create a system that is far more transparent? How do we create rating agencies which are competing against each other to rate the schools on the basis of performance, which we don't really see today in as much depth as it should. Of course we have a few magazines which do rank and rate schools, but it is not done in a very systematic and in-depth manner.
Satya: That happens only at the very high end of schools and not across all schools which would enable parents to make choices.
Parth: I can easily imagine a system where every registered school would be rquired to put up information on a single server or central website about the school itself, how many classes I am running, what fees I'm charging, who are the teachers in my school, how many students do I have, what was the performance of my students in a particular exam conducted by a third party? All of that can now be easily made available in a single place and now I think it is easy to do with the technology we have. That could be one way of bringing more light in the education system and thereby being able to make informed choices, not just by parents, but also by policy makers. Even government doesn't know what is happening in schools to make informed policies.
Satya: But most parents may not be equipped to assimilate all this information and compare and make choices. So just as in the financial markets, most lay investors don't have the ability to actually analyse the financials of each of the companies before they invest money in it either as a fixed deposit or by buying shares in the company, there are rating agencies that rate these companies. So do you think there is a role for some kind of an independent rating agency to evaluate schools based on their administration, learning outcomes and the kind of facilities/infrastructure available there and help parents make choices.
Parth: I think what is required first is the large scale assessmemnt of learning outcomes. Today in India, we only have ASER surveys that are done annually across the country that tells us about where we are in terms of learning outcomes. It is a very short study/assessment that we do. It is also done only in rural areas. So we have no understanding of what is happenign in urban areas of India. The first thing we need to do is to figure out a way to do large scale assessments. We can do assessments at three leves in a sense, - the system level, which is what ASER is trying to do, the school level, and the student level.
All three levels are equally important. For the policy maker, the system level is far more important. For a school, the school assessment is more important. So I can know where my school is compared to other schools. For a parent, the student assessment is more important to know where my child stands compared to other children in society.I think all three are equally important. To figure out how to do assessment at all three levels, which is not very high stakes.Student assessment should be low stakes assessment.
Satya: When you say high stakes what do you mean?
Parth: Not pass or fail. That is something that the schools do to some extent individually in any way.
Satya: It wouldn't affect the children's chances in something - that's what you mean by low stakes?
Parth: Yes, low stakes assessments at all three levels are very important. Once you have the system in place, then giving the information out in some easily understandable manner is the next step to take. I think many of the non-profits and of course the governments can play an important role in that area. That's one way of thinking about how do we increase the information base on which people can make decisions.
Second, I think we also should not downplay the rough and ready measures of quality that even illiterate parents have. Many of the conversations I have had with parents through our School Choice Campaign are quite illustrative. They do design informal ways to assess quality of a school. One set of parents tell us that schools are good if they have teachers from Kerala. This is a bizarre way of thinking about school quality. But when you look at it, it makes very good sense. Generally speaking, teachers from Kerala have been more diligent about their work, more committed to education and therefore they perform better compared to others. That has become a good marker for quality - which school has more teachers from Kerala. Not something that would go into an assessment system if you build one, but a great way for parents to figure it out. Some parents judge whether my child is doing the homework at home or not. If they homework is assigned, checked by the teacher the next day, I can see the notebook of my child even though I can't understand what is written in it, I can see it was checked by teacher. That tells me that the teacher is looking at what the child has done every everyday and that is a good measure of quality for me.
There are lots of different ways in which parents do discover quality which would not be seen as scientific by many of the education experts, but certainly that works for the parents.
Satya: But then one of the problems with schools as opposed to other sectors where you look at a marketplace approach is that the kind of cycle over which you get feedback is longer and there is a switching cost. You can't leave a school today and go and join another school tomorrow if you don't like it. Sometimes you don't know whether a school has done well or not till much later, when it is too late to go back and change anything. So how would you address that in the context of school choice.
Parth: You are right, the switching cost is much higher in the case of schools, than say the case of cellphones. But one thing to realise is that the higher the switching cost, the more the care you would take in making that choice. When I go out and buy a pencil, I don't really worry about comparing quality or brands. I just pick one up that is available at the store. The cost of getting a wrong pencil is pretty low. So there is no reason to invest time in analysing the quality of pencils and brands. But when I go and buy a cellphone, there's a slightly higher cost, then I certainly invest a lot more time and effort in figuring out the quality of the cellphone to buy. I talk to my friends and family members and do some research on the net. I think it is very clear human behaviour in terms of costs and benefits. When the costs are higher, you invest more in making your choice. So if the cost of making a wrong choice in education is giong to be so much higher compared to choosing a pencil or a cell phone, then obviously I would invest more time and energy in making that choice. Of course, I may be constrained in making the choice because I don't have enough information to make that choice and thereby rely on rough and ready second hand guesses of what is a good quality school. That is a different challenge. It is not inherent in the marketplace - it is how the marketplace is designed and what comes out of that marketplace which is the real problem, not the fact that it is a school that you are choosing.
Satya: I think you certainly do have a lot more faith in the parents' ability to make informed choices than most other people do.
Parth: Well, we live in a democracy and decmocracy depends on the faith in the voter. Otherwise you would not be able to accept the system, right?
So even illiterate voters, whatever choices they make, we respect their choices. I think the same applies to everything else that the same voter chooses. Whether the voter chooses a school as a parent. That choice has to be respected. You can always help voters make a better choice, just like what we are doing in election time - providing more and better information to voters to make more informed choices. But that doesn't mean that we will discard democracy until voters become smart enough to be able to vote smartly.
Satya: School Choice as an idea has been around for a while and has been implemented in various other countries. What is the experience of other countries in implementing school choice?
Parth: I think it varies. School Choice is obviously a much broader concept. Within that we discuss lots of different things are packaged under the school choice idea. Starting from Vouchers, to the regulatory reforms on the supply side, to the financing of free education by the government, lump sum grants.
Satya: Could you explain these various different models a bit more? When you say vouchers that is clear. A school could would get money if a student came joined that school. The government would pay the school for the student. That is the voucher model. What are the other models.
Parth: Per student funding model by the government
Satya: That is the voucher model, right?
Parth: No even for government schools. The voucher model is usually for private schools. So you take the public fund and go to a private school. The voucher allows you to make that choice. But you also need to have competition within the public schools or government schools. The per student funding way of government schools creates that kind of competition. My funding is not guaranteed by the fact that I exist. It depends how many students I have. So I have to attract and retain students to renew my funding every year. That's the other way of creating choice. So you can choose the school within government schools as opposed to across government and private schools. This is a different model in a sense of choice. The choice is limited only to government schools and you don't have access to private schools.
Satya: But would there be multiple government schools in the same area where you would actually have choice? It is unlikely because the government wouldn't want to set up one more school in the same area where there already exists a school? You may not in effect have a choice between government schools.
Parth: I think that depends in effect on your understanding of what parents are willing to do to find a good school. We assume that all parents want their children to walk to a school, then obviously choice is very limited. There are not many schools within walking distance of everyone's home. But that's not really the case. We know most students are willing to travel long distances to get to a good school. We know areas in many parts of the country which have become hubs for school education. There are buses that travel about 30-40km each way and bring students from that area to a single place.
Satya: Could you give us examples of such places?
Parth: I think one that a friend of mine talked about is near Vizag and he was staying there for some other purpose in a small hotel. In the morning when he woke up for breakfast sitting on the terrace, he saw so many school buses coming in. This was not a big enough town for so many school buses. Then he realised that the buses were coming in from a 40km radius around the town.
Satya: So you don't see a problem with a lack of multiple government schools in the same place. Government schools farther away could still be something that parents could choose. But you would have a capacity constraint since the other government schools would not be able to take more than a certain number of students. Government schools are not going to be set up as easily as a private school would be. So there would be a problem there in terms of competition between government schools.
Parth: Sure, sure. If you think about it, you don't really need a physical building called a school to get an education. Again we are so much fixed in the old system of education that it is very hard to imagine or debate what it could look like in the 21st century. I think there are different models of education. The brick and mortar model which has become the central model is not really the only model. My sense is that this is not the most effective model either. So that's a different debate in terms of what could happen once you open up the education sector. I always wonder that one area where we have seen the least amount of change in our life is education. Hardly anything has changed in the last 50-60 years by and large. It is also because of the fact that we have very centralised systems and a very dogmatic view of what education is about. That is the price that we are paying. Hopefully with the ideas of choice being taken seriously, with the people's faith in parents to make those choices increasing, as democracy spreads around the world, we would see a different kind of education ecosystem and landscape than what we have seen so far.
Satya: One other model that is normally talked about in the context of school choice is for a bunch of parents to get together and set up their own school, which is the Charter School Model. What are your views on that? Do you think that would work in the Indian context.
Parth: Charter schools are bascially schools where the funding is public, but the management is private. I think we already have in a sense this model going back a long time in our history, which is the private-aided schools, where the government funded it and the management was private. Many of the top schools in the country today belong to that category. It is certianly a good model. It is not new to us. It maybe new to other countries, but we have been using this model for a long time. It has largely worked. The only problem is that the funding for the schools is not tied to their performance. So we assumed the schools would do a good job and keep funding them year after year. The only thing we need to change there is to convert that funding to aided schools to per-student funding and tie them to some level of performance benchmarks. Once we do that, the aided school model can expand even further and charter schools will be part of that model in a sense.
Satya: Coming back to the experience of school choice in other countries, which are the countries where it has worked well and which are the countries where it has not worked well.
Parth: It depends whom you ask! frankly. There is no one clear answer. Being an advocate of school choice, I've looked at a lot of literature on this issue and it is really a mix in many ways. For e.g. Sweden has a universal school voucher program where every child gets a voucher to go to a school of its choice and they allow for-profit education. They have seen pretty large growth in the private sector. It used to be about 2% before the voucher programme came into existence and now it is 18-20%.
What is interesting about this experience, is that not that it just deals with education choice in the narrower sense, but also in a much broader context of social harmony. For e.g. many of the smaller countries have larger immigrant populations from various countries, of different faiths and they have to find ways to accommodate these new citizens in a sense within the old structure. In case of Sweden, what they have done is that by opening up through school vouchers, a group of say Hindu parents or Muslim parents or any religious group can get together and open their own school. The law requires that 60% of the curriculum they teach must be the national curriculum - the other 40% they are free to choose whatever they think is right for their kids. This has been a very good and effective way to accommodate different demands from different parental groups. As opposed to fighting for what could be taught in every school as a single model, you basically decentralise that decision making, empower the parents to make those choices and thereby reduce that kind of conflict within the society. So I think choice is not just about school per se but also about larger issues of social harmony.
Sweden provides a very good example of it. In Sweden,it seems to have worked by most standards. It doesn't seem to have worked in Chile for example. It was one of the first countries to implement voucher program on a larger scale. What I have concluded after looking at the experiences of various countries is that voucher or school choice is like democracy. It is an idea. In the world today more than 100 democracies. Each one works differently. Can you say if democracy is a good system or bad system? It depends, which country you pick. In come countries it works quite well and in other countries it doesn't work that well. So would you then throw out the idea of democracy or think about the implementation of the idea and how it has been done on the ground. I think that is what largely what applies largely to school choice or education vouchers. It is not so much the idea per se which is good or bad, but mostly how you implement the idea, how you contextualise it to local conditions, take into account what are the constraints the people and the school system are facing and create a system that works within that framework.
I think if countries have succeded in doing it, you see the model by and large works. Not everyone is happy, but most people are happy with what they got. Where the model is not really thought through well, not revised, or has not built a system to revise the models as experience tells them, then you get fixed into a choice model, like you got fixed into a centralised government education system earlier and both are equally bad in terms of longer term perspective.
Satya: What do you think are the prospects for implementing school choice in India. What do you think is the receptivity for such an idea amongst parents, teachers, school administrators and amongst policy makers and politicians?
Parth: I think there is no debate in India. We are way past the debate. People like us of course keep debating it. But parents and society at large have already made the choice. India probably has the most privatised school educaiton system in the world. We have 30% of the kids in rural areas going to private schools. By most surveys, 50 above percent of kids go to private schools in urban areas. Nowhere in the world is this the case. I think the educationists and experts are debating about choice and what parents can be allowed or not allowed to do, parents have already made the choice on their own.
The issue now is in terms of how do you support the choice that parents have made and as opposed to curtailing the choice,which is what the RTE is trying to do by attacking the low fee private schools, which are the alternatives for poor parents. That is quite unfortunate, they way this is playing it. The battle between private and state schools, the brunt of the battle is being borne by the low fee private schools, which is the option for poor parents. In a sense, the debates of experts and educationists, the price of the debate is being paid by the poor parents of the country. Their choice is being taken away. You and I would of course have a choice, since we can afford to send our kids to higher fee private schools. That's quite unfortunate. The debate instead of allowing and strengthening the choice that people are making, and helping them to make a better choice, helping them to of course to help schools do a better job of it. There is no gainsaying that our schools can improve. They can improve quite a lot.
Satya: But if you want to move towards a per student funding model, what is the receptivity towards that? That was the crux of the question.
Parth: That issue arises only when you want the government to fund education for every child. If the parents are willing to spend their own money, and as we know in India, even the poorest parents are willing to spend their own money and sacrifice quite a bit of their life in the process. There's no issue of whether the government would give the money are not. That's what I meant that the debate is already besides the point. Many experts who look at the education system in India, point out that if we can keep debating this issue, within 3-5 years, the debate will be quite moot since most parents would already have made the choice and left the system.
Satya: That's happening on the demand side. But on the supply side, if you need to improve the options that parents have in making that choice, in ensuring that they have information, transparency and accountability on the part of schools and all of that, then there has to be a lot of action on the supply side. What is the receptivity for that? You see any prospect of that happening in the near future or what do you think needs to be done?
Parth: The biggest challenge I see in moving to a more transparent and accountable education system is the lack of trust among the various stake holders. Take for e.g. the 25% seats in private schools under the RTE. The schools have no trust in the government that they would actually deliver the money as promised. The government doesn't have trust in the schools that they would actually take the students who are actually supposed to qualify under the system and not sell the seats to higher paying customers.
There's a mutual distrust by all parties including parents if you bring them into the picture. If you include regulators, they also distrust both parties. They don't trust parents' capacities to make judgments and choices. They don't trust the private schools because they think they are out to make money for themselves at the cost of parents.
The biggest challenge I see in moving towards a better system is the lack of trust and unless we establish that trust, open the channels of communication which are honest and forthright, we will not be able to build the basic foundation that will allow us to then build the larger system that we want on that foundation.
Satya: So you are saying it is possible to implement school choice as it is now or do you think lot of persuasion is required to implement school choice. There's a lot of resistance from those groups which would not want status quo to change. So how do you think school choice is actually likely to be implemented? Do you see a road map towards that?
Parth: My personal sense is that we are at sort of cusp or a tipping point. From there we can go either way. I think it is not very clear which way we are going to go. RTE has defined one path for the country. That certainly is not a path for choice. That is a path for more uniformity, more standardisation, more focus on inputs and not learning outcomes. That is unfortunately a wrong path for us to walk.
At the same time, there's enough understanding at all levels, within the government and outside government that we need to think of better alternatives. This is not the way India should be moving forward. So I think forces align in a way where I see that we could go to a tipping point and RTE could reverse itself and make us move in a direction of more choice, open accountability and not in terms of standardisation and uniformity that is being currently done.
I hope that people like us, dialogues that we are having could play a role in educating a larger number of people on why these choices are so important at this point in our history. I agree that if we do make a wrong choice,the costs are very very serious.
Satya: But there is not much of grassroots demand for better education. It doesn't figure in any politicians' agenda yet. As long as there is no grassroots demand for change, for school choice as you want, how do you see that actually being implemented? Don't you think that unless there is grassroots level demand for change, this is unlikely to change.
Parth: I don't know if there's no grassroots level demand. Yes, there is no grassroots level demand in a political sense. There are no candidates who talk about education system reform. There are no organised groups of parents who put that demand on the political system. That is true. What has happened is that people have found their own private solutions. In a sense, people have given up the hope, based on what they are hearing from educationists and education bureacrats and they don't see the system working in their favour. Therefore I think each one tries to find their own private solution because they can't see a systemic solution emerging from this scenario.
I think that is how the demand for quality has become a private demand for quality as opposed to social demand for quality. To that extent, people are not as worried about putting more demand on the political system and therefore you don't see politicians are not responding to any such lack of demand.
Satya: But in a sense, it looks like everybody who can afford it is moving away from the government school system. It is only the people who can't afford it who are stuck in the government school system. They don't have a voice yet and are not yet demanding change. Unless they demand change, people finding their own private solutions is going to continue. That trend is obvious since the number of children enrolled in private schools is increasing both in rural and urban areas. So how do you see this changing? Unless some political party actually responds to the demand for change from people who most need it - the poor who can't go to any other school, its unlikely to change for them.
Parth: Maybe at times, we put too much pressure on the regular voter and what demands they should make on the political system. If you look back, many of the reforms we have done either in the economic sphere or political sphere have not been because of grassroots demand. Nobody has asked from the popular base in a sense that we should disclose criminal cases against candidates and their assets. That came about because of an NGO that went to court.
Satya: But those are not things that impinge on the lives and futures of the people who are the most disadvantaged.
Parth: But if you take the case of economic reforms which do impinge on the lives of everybody, there has been no grassroots demand for economic reforms in that sense, but we have done those reforms.
Satya: But in a sense, if you look at the way in which politicians respond or have respponded in the past, they have responded with slogans like Garibi Hatao or Roti Kapada Aur Makaan or Bijli Sadak aur Pani. They coined these because they see people demanding these kinds of things. They have not yet seen people demanding better education.
Parth: Sure, I agree with you that somethings would happen because of political demands. There are lots of examples that you gave where those things have been talked about by the political system because people appeared to have demanded it. We don't really know wehther they actually demanded it or not.
Satya: But politicians usually respond to what they think people want.
Parth: Sure,sure, but I think I would not stretch that argument to the other extreme and say that only those things can be done in a society which can be demanded by a larger group of people. I can see many things we have changed in our society which are against larger group of people. Over a period of time those things have changed. Take for e.g. the Sati system in India. The majority was in favour of it. Only a small minority was against it. But we changed that. So I think it is not always the case that every reform that happens has to have a larger political base and demand. I think we do for other reasons too. The same is true for politicians too. Something they do in response to the demand from voters and things they do because they think it is the right thing to do. I am hoping that education is in the second category rather than the first category. We can still make it work. Even though there may not be grassroots pressure on the reforming education, I can think of various reasons why there may not be one. It is not really clear what you should do. Even experts dont know what to do to reform the education system. It is hard for parents to know what is the one thing I should demand from the political system to get a better education for my kid. It is a very complex subject in itself and therefore it makes it difficult as opposed to asking for Roti, Kapada aur Makaan, which is a very obvious thing in terms of whether you got it or not.
I think complexity of the service in a sense also plays a role in articulating demand for reform. I think given all of those constraints, we need to focus on not so much the demand per se, but what needs to be done and align ourselves in getting those things done.
Satya: Thanks very much Parth for taking the time to talk to me. It's a pleasure talking to you.
Parth: Same is true for me. Great questions and good discussion. Thank you.