In India, the choice to live outside the faltering grid of government services is usually reserved for the rich or middle class, who can afford private housing compounds, private hospitals and private schools, Vikas Bajaj and Jim Yardley write in the New York Times today. “But as India’s economy has expanded during the past two decades, an increasing number of India’s poor parents are now scraping together money to send their children to low-cost private schools in hopes of helping them escape poverty,” they write. The rise in private schools has created “parallel educational systems,” they write, that are now colliding with a new government law.
Education is one of India’s most pressing challenges. Half of India’s 1.2 billion people are 25 or younger, and literacy levels, while improving, could cripple the country’s long-term prospects. In many states, government education is in severe disarray, with teachers often failing to show up. Rote drilling still predominates. English, considered a prerequisite for most white-collar employment in India, is usually not the medium of instruction. When it took effect in April 2010, the Right to Education Act enshrined, for the first time, a constitutional right to schooling, promising that every child from 6 to 14 would be provided with it. For a nation that had never properly financed education for the masses, the law was a major milestone. “If we nurture our children and young people with the right education,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, commemorating the act with a televised address, “India’s future as a strong and prosperous country is secure.” Few disagree with the law’s broad, egalitarian goals or that government schools need a fundamental overhaul. But the law also enacted new regulations on teacher-student ratios, classroom size and parental involvement in school administration that are being applied to government and private schools. The result is a clash between an ideal and the reality on the ground, with a deadline: Any school that fails to comply by 2013 could be closed. Kapil Sibal, the government minister overseeing Indian education, has scoffed at claims that the law will cause mass closings of private schools. Yet in Hyderabad, education officials are preparing for exactly that outcome. They are constructing new buildings and expanding old ones, partly to comply with the new regulations, partly anticipating that students will be forced to return from closing private institutions. The rising demand created a new market for private schools, and entrepreneurs big and small have jumped at the chance to profit from it. Corporate educational chains opened schools tailored to higher-income families, especially in the expanding cities. Low-cost schools like Holy Town proliferated in poorer neighborhoods, a trend evident in most major cities and spreading into rural India.
Estimating the precise enrollment of private schools is tricky. Government officials say more than 90 percent of all primary schools are run by or financed by the government. Yet one government survey found that 30 percent of the 187 million students in grades 1 through 8 now attend private schools. Some academic studies have suggested that more than half of all urban students now attend private academies. In Mumbai, so many parents have pulled their children out of government schools that officials have started renting empty classrooms to charities and labor unions — and even to private schools. In recent years, Indian officials have increased spending on government education, dedicating far more money for new schools, hiring teachers and providing free lunches to students. Still, more and more parents are choosing to go private. “What does it say about the quality of your product that you can’t even give it away for free?” Mr. Muralidharan said.