By Siddharth Bhargava
October 19, 2012
India has long been a country where entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill gaps in the market, and their role in primary education has been no different. Over the last decade, an estimated 300,000 low-cost private schools have sprung up across India. And as counterintuitive as it seems, many poor parents are willing to pay for their children's schooling to avoid the country's free education system.
The lamentable state of education in one of the world’s poorest countries is not simply a case of the government lacking funds—it has had a longstanding goal to increase spending to 6% of GDP, although spending is currently at 3.2%. The U.S., by comparison, is at 5.7% and China at 1.9% of GDP. The Indian government is also aware of the need to educate its population. A constitutional act passed in 2009 elevated the right to education to the same legal status as the right to life, and it has set quotas for the disadvantaged to receive a primary education. However, statistics show that Indian eighth graders still have math skills comparable to those of South Korean third graders, and for writing and math, India ranks near the bottom out of 75 countries surveyed.
Unfortunately, certain laws still echo the historical bureaucracy India has been known for; setting up an accredited school requires registration as a trust, approval from several levels of government, affiliation with national education boards and a string of expensive requirements including land, proper sanitation and books and staffing for libraries.
By often foregoing accreditation, such schools tend to operate at far lower costs than public ones while their effectiveness lies in the free-market approach. Low-cost private schools generally charge less than US$10 per month, have bare bones infrastructure with teachers drawn from local communities that are trained in-house. The schools compete on price and quality as parents are free to move their children to another local school that may deliver better results. This approach fosters greater accountability and encourages lower absenteeism. The effect is measurable and studies have demonstrated that, on average, students in low-cost private schools outperform their counterparts in government institutions at a lower cost. As with any nascent system, there are issues: low-cost private schools have higher teacher attrition rates than public schools, and they often lack such infrastructure as playgrounds or even desks and chairs. In order to take national exams, students must be enrolled in an accredited school, which means that by the eighth grade they need to transfer out of these private schools.
Rather than viewing education as its fiefdom, India’s government should support this competition, relax guidelines for accreditation and remedy its own policies and systems. It should encourage enrollment by providing scholarships, ease requirements for facilities, centralize licensing and encourage private investment. Students should be allowed to sit for standardized exams regardless of their enrollment status.
India has often been characterized as a country where commerce thrives despite government policies; perhaps in this instance, the government could instead give impetus to entrepreneurs as they look to educate the country’s 290 million children.
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