Thoughts on the Indian Economy

Thinking about assorted economic issues in India.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Education Vouchers-- Some Doubts

The explosive protests against the government's plans to increase reservations in institutions of higher education have spurred debate about Indian education in general. On the topic of reforming K-12 education, one idea floating around is of vouchers for education. The basic premise behind vouchers is that parents have the choice and money to send their kids to private schools instead of being restricted to shoddy public schooling. Since parents have greater choice, schools stay on their toes to maintain standards of education, otherwise parents will just send their kids elsewhere. Proponents say that vouchers will increase competition among schools promoting resulting in an efficient supply of education and thus, producing better educational outcomes for children. The Indian Economy blog presents the following example:

"Let's see how this would play out in the case of a hypothetical "sufficiently poor" family. Abhi and Anu's parents are daily wage earners who need the Rs 10 each kid earns every day to keep the family going. So sending them to school where the tuition fees and other school related expenses are Rs 400 per month per child is out of the question. Their total cost of sending a child to school is Rs 400 plus the foregone earnings of Rs 30 per month. So the government gives vouchers that Abhi and Anu use to pay or the privately run school in their neighborhood that they attend. And on op of that, the government gives the parents Rs 600 every month as long as he kids continue in school. Net cost to the family: zero.All the way to inishing high school, Abhi and Anu continue to receive free schooling and the parents are given an incentive to continue to keep the kids in school. By the time they finish 12th grade, both Abhi and Anu are as properly schooled as any other kid from a middle class family who are not poor."

I believe primary & secondary education is an area where the government has a firm duty to ensure universal quality and access. Yes, that sounds like a lofty goal given decrepitipit state of the public Indian education system right now, but we have to keep in mind that it is the ultimate goal. A fair and sound education system run by the government is not some crazy concept that needs be overhauled by introducing vouchers. The problem is not the concept of the current system, it is implementation. By shifting education mostly into private hands, vouchers change the fundamental nature of the system-- this is not a desirable goal. I present three main reasons why the government should stay in primary & secondary education:

1. Government Control Stays: The whole premise behind introducing vouchers is that the government has failed to deliver so let's take the government out of the education sector. The efforts are misdirected because vouchers will not solve the basic problem plaguing the system-- corruption, laziness, lack of monitoring and quality control. What leads us to believe that the "new" Ministry of Voucher Distribution will not suffer any of those problems that its predecessor the Ministry of Education suffered? Private school's business might not remain so private since the government is essentially funding them through vouchers. And will the school voucher become the new ration card replete with paying bribes to get them and a thriving black market for them? Basically, there is no reason to believe that vouchers relieves the government of any responsibility.

2. Inequality Stays: Say vouchers are introduced. Now armed with money provided by the government, parents can choose whichever private school they want to send their kids to. Private school X has the best reputation and so everyone queues up to X. Obviously, X cannot take everyone but they do have the pick of the crop. They will take the best and the brightest and the rest end up in private school Y. If you believe that peers affect the quality of education that is, the quality of the student body affects quality of education, then students of stronger school X will clearly get a better education than school Y. Yes, it is absolutely true that in the short-run, vouchers will enable a certain amount of children to access education when they previously could not. But it is doubtful that inequality will decrease. Stratification of private schools based on ability and income level is inevitable.

3. Religious schools: Many of us are products of a good old Convent education. Religiously affiliated schools are very common in the private school scene, so what does it mean to use a voucher (comprised of government money) at a Christian or Muslim or Hindu school? The concept of secularism gets somewhat murky in this situation.

The focal point of K-12 reform needs to get rid of leaks in the system not do away with the system itself; a system of government running school which is fine in its conception. Government money must fund the infrastructure of schools that it supposed to. It must enforce drastically grave consequences for teachers (this may sound a tad harsh, but I am not completely against a couple days in jail for teachers caught shirking ) who constantly do not show up for work like they are supposed to.*

* The study of 188 government-run primary schools in central and northern India revealed that 59% of the schools had no drinking water facility and 89% no toilets; and, most alarmingly, a large number of teachers were found to be absent at the time of the survey. On the basis of three surprise visits made to 3,700 randomly-selected schools in 20 Indian states, another study concluded that teacher-absenteeism in India is 25%. That is, at any random time, 25% of the teachers are absent from school. Source: Kaushik Basu's BBC column


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