Policy Watch Columns

A learning curve on school choice

Basic education, like healthcare and subsistence, is an essential for equality of opportunity and access to the market. File Photo  

While ‘school choice’ is an active topic of discussion among educationists, think tanks, NGOs and some sectors of the government, it is surprisingly not discussed in the media. Considering the profound impact it may have on education and on the character of our democracy, it ought to be discussed more widely.

‘School choice’ connotes policies and schemes that give substantial weight to the choice of parents in determining their child’s schooling. It builds on Milton Friedman’s idea that administration and financing of schools are separable functions of the government. The modern regulatory state, Friedman argued, should concentrate on the function of coordination instead of substantial provisioning of services. He proposed that the government establish minimum levels of schooling and finance it by “giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on ‘approved’ educational services.” Parents could use this voucher with any additional sum on their account for “purchasing educational services from an approved institution of their choice.” Although vouchers are non-targeted in Friedman’s scheme, a targeted voucher is not conceptually inimical. The service providers could be any private school whether they run it for profit or not. The government, as part of its coordinating function, would establish infrastructure norms, teacher qualifications, and curriculum.

RTE and the purpose of education

The government schools have managed an unfavourable reputation for being inefficient, non-functioning and even beyond repair. The ASER-2014 suggests that reading levels of students at private schools are better than those at government schools (but we need to factor the number and profile of students in the respective systems). Yet, more students from economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups study in government schools than in private ones. ‘School choice’, it is argued, would allow children from these groups to access schools which they earlier could not. Parents, armed with vouchers, may shift their children to another school if they find the earlier one inadequate. The competition would make it economically unwise for schools to neglect their interests. Of course, private schools have huge variations and limited seats among them. The lottery system resorted to in such instances treats differently situated people at the same level, resulting in unequal outcomes.

The Right to Education Act reserves 25 per cent of seats for children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups in unaided private schools in their neighbourhood. The government would reimburse these schools to the maximum of per child spending in government school. With certain changes, the RTE Act could actually proffer ‘school choice’. In fact, randomised control trials are already being conducted. A project in Andhra Pradesh found that private schools performed only marginally better but their per-child expenditure was much lower than public schools (helped significantly by over-worked and under-paid teachers). On the other hand, it has been noticed that intra-household gender disparities were replicated in school choice as well. In the U.S. and Canada, studies suggest an inverse relationship between social disadvantage and choice. The ‘school choice’ proposal gives only a limited consideration to the context that makes a ‘choice’ significant.

However, ‘school choice’ proponents need to ask if there are any common values that need to be inculcated through the medium of education for which merely a common minimum syllabus would not suffice. The argument here is not that improvement of individuals would cumulatively improve the collective, which is technically possible if all schools give equally good education to all students. Education, importantly, has both instructional as well as experiential aspects. Perhaps, cultivation of democratic values is helped more by experience than instruction. Still, ‘school choice’ could arguably facilitate diversity by providing vouchers to children from disadvantaged sections to study alongside those from privileged segments. With background constraints like strict anti-discrimination laws, vouchers, like votes, could play a role in deepening democracy and pluralism. Yet, an outcome-based proposal like this inevitably calls for standardisation, neglecting the diverse ways in which knowledge has been acquired and transferred between generations of Indians.

Questions ahead

The ‘school choice’ debate should engage with some questions. Would ‘school choice’ attract competent teachers from government schools which offers them a better paid, less arduous and more secure job? If the ‘consumers’ of education (children) are not really the decision-makers (parents) of school choice (a recognised distinction in the Child Rights Convention), are we only substituting one paternalism with another?

Can we design a regulatory structure that makes our democratic commitments and variegated social contexts central and permanent features of ‘school choice’? Basic education, like healthcare and subsistence, is an essential for equality of opportunity and access to the market. Only when these background conditions are equal can we hold people responsible for their market decisions involving opportunity costs, which would simultaneously generate economic differentials. Therefore, would it not intensify inequalities if these background conditions that bring people on a level playing field are subjected to market outcomes?

With market economies becoming market societies, Michael Sandel asks critical questions that should also inform the ‘school choice’ debate: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketisation of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets not honour and money cannot buy?”

Ajey Sangai is Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 5:32:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/A-learning-curve-on-school-choice/article14378347.ece

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