NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

India's Mangled School Reforms

September 14, 2011

Last year, India enacted a school voucher program under the Right to Education Act that would supposedly allow 30 million poor kids to get government vouchers that they could spend on private school tuition.  Promising as it first appeared, the program came with regulations that would actually cripple the private school market, says Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst for the Reason Foundation.

Some of these regulations include:

  • A requirement for private schools to set aside 25 percent of seats for "economically backward" kids with vouchers.
  • A requirement for all private schools to create minimum playground space, maintain prescribed teacher-student ratios, hire credentialed teachers and pay salaries equivalent to those of unionized teachers.
  • A rule barring private schools from holding back low-performing middle school students.

If India's Supreme Court allows the provisions to stand, the new law will do severe damage to the private school market, which is a much bigger part of the K-12 mix in India than in America.

  • About 55 percent of the nation's urban children attend private schools, fleeing India's abysmal public schools, where teachers routinely don't show up and, when they do, often don't teach or are abusive.
  • Private schools, on the other hand have mushroomed everywhere, from urban slums to backwater villages.
  • They are run by nonprofits, for-profits and religious organizations.

Putting more demands on schools already doing so much with so little will have catastrophic consequences.  If the government enforces its new regulations, many schools will struggle to survive financially.  Some schools may receive an exemption from the rules and another possibility is that the government simply won't be able to enforce its regulations on the extensive network of Hindu and Muslim schools without triggering religious riots.  But even if loopholes and lax enforcement prevent total annihilation of the private school industry, many schools will surely shut down.

India's reforms offer a warning about the perils of government meddling dressed up as choice.  School choice advocates should stop cheering India's new education law.  Just because it contains something resembling vouchers doesn't mean that it has anything to do with empowering parents or expanding educational options, says Dalmia.

Source: Shikha Dalmia, "India's Mangled School Reform," City Journal, Summer 2011.

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