Palakiti Joji’s eyes light up at the prospect of sending his six-year-old daughter Blessy to one of the top private schools in Vijayawada city.
Joji is a daily wage worker in the construction sector and lives at Lakgudem, which is a stone’s throw from the Kankipadu mandal headquarters in Krishna district. The village is inhabited mostly by people belonging to the Scheduled Castes. and are either migrant labourers or those who make a living by selling plastic toys, or fruits and vegetables. The place presents a grim picture of families at the lower end of the social and economic ladder.
“I cannot afford my child’s education in a private school as the fees are very high. But now it seems possible, thanks to the government initiative,” Joji says, smiling faintly. He is 34, but living through poverty, he seems to be ageing prematurely.
Blessy is Joji and his wife Mounika’s middle child. She has two siblings— Sarvanand, 8, goes to a government school and Akash, 4, gets dropped off at the nearby Anganwadi centre, a child and mother care centre run as part of the Centrally-sponsored Integrated Child Development Services scheme.
Admissions increased from 2,157 to 18,749
Blessy is excited about her ‘big school’ where her mother has gone to enquire about the date of commencement of the classes. She is among the 26,279 children selected for admission in private schools in Andhra Pradesh for free education under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, for the academic year 2023-24. This increased from the 2,157 admissions made in the last year when the government first began implementing the clause.
Under Section 12 (1) (C), private unaided (by the government) schools must provide free and compulsory education to children from disadvantaged sections by admitting them in at least one-fourth of the total strength of Class-I or preschool education. Andhra Pradesh is in the second year of implementing the clause.
Before Blessy’s family received the good news though, the School Education Department in the State had gone through a marathon session of identifying the children.
It invited parents from marginalised communities to apply for free education for their children in private schools under the Right to Education clause on February 26, 2023, through a GO.
In response, 45,372 people applied, but only 27,648 of them exercised their web options.
A six-step validation process was followed before declaring 25,438 of the applicants eligible for free seats.
“We however allotted different schools to 26,279 eligible children, but only 18,749 of them joined them while others dropped out,” says Commissioner of School Education S. Suresh Kumar.
‘Combining equity with quality’
Champions of the Right to Education Act, like the Delhi-based think tank Indus Action, see the initiative as a way to combine equity with quality.
“Students who have enriching school experiences are more likely to stay in the education system, and this transfers into greater choices in terms of career and life opportunities, argues Ra Shhiva, Director of the organisation, which is working with seven State governments in the country for effective execution of the children’s right to education and other key livelihood issues.
But limited success in its implementation by States across the country creates a hindrance in achieving social justice goals.
Only 18 States enforce
According to the 2021 report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), only 16 States are implementing this provision of the RTE. Andhra Pradesh and Haryana have joined the list now. Compared to States like Uttarakhand, which is in its fourth year of implementation of the Act with an enrolment of 25,000 children from marginalised communities in private educational institutions for free education this year, Andhra Pradesh has done relatively well.
Public Interest Litigation in 2017
In 2017, Yogesh Thandava, who was then a law student, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the combined High Court (The High Court was not divided then), making both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana States as respondents, and sought the court direction for the implementation of 25 % quota for economically poor kids in private schools.
“The government has reduced the whole exercise into a mere eyewash by violating the Standard Operating Procedure which mandates wide publicity and awareness to be created about the initiative through advertisements,” he says, producing copies of a few advertisements in local media for which he paid from his own pocket.
“The government did not sponsor a single advertisement. As a result, 85,000 seats were left vacant in the State last year, and the number has gone up to 92,000 seats that could have been filled with eligible children,” he says expressing concern.
Yogesh filed a fresh contempt case against the government on April 24, 2023, praying for action.
RTE crusaders also feel that in terms of publicity, Andhra Pradesh could have done better by reaching out to the targeted sections through its wide network of volunteers of village and ward Secretariats, a system created to provide government services at the doorsteps of people at the grass root levels.
The State Education Department, however, insists that it has fared well. “Based on last year’s experiences, we tried to plug the loopholes this time, and we are happy with the numbers,” claims the Commissioner of School Education.
He says although there are around 15,000 private schools around, parental preference is only for the top 20-25 % of them.
Race confined to top schools
“The race was mostly for the top private schools in the State, as the mid-level and the budget schools are in no way superior to government schools,” he admits.
Officials here maintain that while other States restrict themselves to the “25% reservation of seats for the economically weaker sections’’ model of welfare in the education sector, Andhra Pradesh has moved ahead of them.
“Forty lahks of our students benefit from the ‘Amma Vodi’ scheme under which mothers of children from disadvantaged groups get financial assistance of ₹13,000 per year. That way, we are reaching out to almost 90% of our student population,” says Principal Secretary of School Education Praveen Prakash.
He says by spending funds to the tune of ₹6,500 crore in the last three years on the school infrastructure programme ‘Mana Badi-Nadu-Nedu’, the government has demonstrated its eagerness to scale up facilities in the State-run schools in a manner that the private institutions would be left far behind in the days to come.
‘Reimbursement from Amma Vodi’
The decision to allocate a certain number of seats in their schools to poor children did not go down well with the private management, who complained of ‘abysmally low’ per child reimbursement fixed by the government and also the mode of reimbursement, besides citing other discrepancies.
The per child (annual) expenditure fixed for students admitted into private educational institutions is ₹8,000 in urban areas, ₹6,500 in rural areas, and ₹5,100 in tribal and Scheduled areas.
Parents whose children have been accommodated in private schools are now asked by the government to pay the reimbursement amount to the school management after receiving the ‘Amma Vodi’ amount at the end of the academic year, conditioned on their ward meeting the minimum of 75% attendance. The financial assistance is withdrawn if a student fails to meet the attendance target.
The government says in case the parents do not pay the amount even after 60 days of receiving the payout under Amma Vodi; it will make the payment to the school and deduct the money from the Amma Vodi payout of the subsequent year.
“The mode of payment is anything but foolproof, leaving wide scope for many parents to turn defaulters. No thought has been spared for the hardship of the school management,” says K. Tulasi Vishnu Prasad, general secretary of Andhra Pradesh Unaided School Managements Association (APUSMA), an organisation working for the welfare of private schools, through its branches spread across the State.
Members of the Andhra Pradesh Independent School Managements’ Association insist that the Government take a re-look at the “paltry” reimbursement. President of the association, Srikanth Koganti, says there are discrepancies like duplication of allotment of students and deviation from the rule of the ‘neighbourhood school’ concept. “We are trying to take these things to the notice of the authorities concerned,” he says.
“RTE is a ploy, a part of a larger conspiracy to shrink the number of State-run educational institutions ”K. Bhanu MurthyPresident of Andhra Pradesh Teachers’ Federation
Teacher unions, meanwhile, have also raised concerns over the RTE Act not covering all students. Leaders of Andhra Pradesh Teachers’ Federation (APTF) point out that the Act is silent on the fate of children below 6 and above 14 years. They also see a hidden agenda of the Central Government to shrink the number of existing educational institutions in the government sector as part of Vision-2030. “RTE is a ploy, a part of a larger conspiracy,” claims the federation president K. Bhanu Murthy.
Mr. Murthy also talks about parents turning down the offer of sending their children to private schools, fearing they may face socio-cultural issues.
Bhargavi Tapparmudi’s 6-year-old son Varshit has been allotted a seat in a ‘corporate school’, but she doesn’t intend to send him there because of the “rude and unkind” behaviour of the school management when she approached them.
“The ward volunteer informed us that it would be free education. But we are being asked to pay ₹8,500 for books and additional money for uniforms. They did not even allow us inside the school premises,” she recounts.
A field level department functionary seeking anonymity admits that many school managements are not responsive to parents approaching them for their ward’s seat and have been demanding payment of fees to discourage them.
“My happiness was short-lived. When I visited the school allotted to my daughter Shanthi, I was asked to pay a fee of ₹22,000 in addition to ₹8,000 for books and uniform,”Bavuri RaniParent from Penamaluru mandal
“My happiness was short-lived. When I visited the school allotted to my daughter Shanthi, I was asked to pay a fee of ₹22,000 in addition to ₹8,000 for books and uniform,” informs Bavuri Rani from Penamaluru mandal. She has backed out and is now considering sending her girl to a nearby government school where her son studies.
This is despite clear instructions to the private management that the allocated expenditure per child should include the cost of books.
Commissioner Suresh Kumar talks of stringent action against such ‘erring’ managements and reassures that the concerted efforts of the department are aimed at ensuring that no seat under Section 12 (1) (C) of the Right to Education Act remains vacant in the State.