Twelve years after the Right to Education Act was passed, public investment in schools remains abysmally low.
The Karnataka Commissioner of School Education on October 19 issued a circular, allowing school monitoring committees to collect Rs 100 or more every month from each parent as a donation to the school contingency fund.
This was to help provide for physical infrastructure such as desks, drinking water, clean toilets, electricity and academic requirements such as learning equipment, guest teachers and a library.
The circular admitted candidly that the government grant was inadequate to meet the school’s expenses and that the parents’ contributions would bridge this gap. Following criticism, the department on October 21 withdrew the circular. But it served to highlight the inadequate financing of education.
Right to education
In 2010, India enacted the Right to Education Act, making free education a fundamental right for all children between six to 14 years of age. The Right to Education Act was based on the 86th amendment that inserted Article 21A into the Constitution as an extension to Article 21, which guarantees the right to life and liberty.
An annexure in the Right to Education Act lists resources that must be available in every school. Apart from the physical and academic infrastructure mentioned above, each school is also required to have an all-weather school building, compound wall, adequate qualified teachers and teaching resources.
According to the Centre’s own admission, as of August 2021, the average compliance with the infrastructure provisions of the Right to Education Act was 25.5%. Punjab and Delhi are the only states that see more than 50% of the schools meeting these requirements, while in Karnataka, 23.6% schools had complied with norms.
Percentage of RTE compliant elementary schools
|State/Union Territory||Compliance percentage||Rank|
|Daman and Diu||28.8||12|
|Andaman & Nicobar islands||25.9||14|
|Dadra and Nagar Haveli||25.3||15|
|Jammu & Kashmir||9.1||31|
Credit: Unstarred question number 2186, response from the Ministry of Education, August 2021.
Even 12 years after the law was passed, most government schools do not have the infrastructure and resources mandated as the fundamental right of every child.
The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, creating an “education emergency”. With schools being shut for prolonged periods due to lockdowns, and also being used as Covid-19 quarantine centres, their physical infrastructure is in poor shape.
Yet, no state has announced special budgetary provisions for schools to rebuild basic infrastructure. Instead, education budgets were reduced – in absolute terms in many states, and in real terms in most states – in the 2021 and 2022 budgets.
Education budget estimate (in rupee crores)
Credit: PRS India and National Coalition on the Education Emergency
Governments, in state and at the Centre, need to invest significantly in multi-level teaching material and teacher preparation to support students. But efforts to address this crisis have been inadequate so far.
The effects of difficulty in comprehending and meaningfully engaging with learning will only compound over the years, forcing children out of the education system. Child labour and early marriages will consequently increase.
The pandemic has also had a huge impact on the economic condition of the population with many losing their jobs, wages declining and hunger rising.
According to the 2022 Global Hunger Index released on October 14, India ranked 104 in a list of 121 countries.
Given the predicament several households are in, should such families donate Rs 100 to a school – as expected by the circular – or spend the money on supplementing their meals? At the same time, the Karnataka government has no qualms about spending Rs 5 crore on a five-minute advertisement for a global investors’ meeting.
While the circular made it clear that the contribution was voluntary, it also said that parents must be cajoled into donating money by explaining the schools’ needs. One can only imagine the pressure on parents who cannot afford to spare the money. Once again, the poorest of the poor will be looked down upon.
State-run schools are usually the last resort of those who cannot afford the fees of private institutions – all because the government itself does not seem keen on investing in providing quality education to its citizens. The circular asking parents to donate even the small sum of Rs 100 is unconstitutional, in addition to being insensitive.
A position paper titled “Emerging Trends in Community Participation in Education” prepared by Karnataka after the New Education Policy 2020, clearly says “State should seriously address all attempts and approaches, knowingly or unknowingly to shift the state’s responsibility to ensure the full implementation of the fundamental right to education. This specially means that no monetary burden should be imposed on the community, this would discourage the communities to participate in the process of school development and monitoring”.
If there is one insight from the Karnataka government circular it is that investment in public education is grossly inadequate.
The 1966 Kothari Commission had recommended that the government’s expenditure on education should be at least 6% of the gross domestic product, or GDP. But since Independence, at no point did the government’s expenditure on education hit even 5% of the GDP.
Expenditure on education as percentage of GDP
|Year||Total % of GDP|
Credit: World Development Indicators, via World Bank
The government has levied an education cess, which is collected on taxes. But the cess has displaced existing budgetary provisions rather than supplementing them, as was the intent.
The circular had another problem – imposing additional tasks on teachers. Schools were expected to maintain a separate account for these donations and every three months, the institution had to tell parents how the money had been used. The easy assumption of the infinite spare capacity of teachers for administrative tasks has direct implications on their time to teach.
Since ensuring each school has minimum administration support staff (well -resourced institutions would have clerk, peon, security or some combination thereof) will require a significant regular outlay towards salaries, it is easier to put this work load on teachers, even if it would take their time away from teaching, impacting quality of education.
But the most pernicious element of the circular is the assertion that such donations will enhance the participation of parents in the schools’ activities, lead them to focus on their child’s education and feel a sense of ownership of the school. The idea that what is free is not valued and that only money can help see its importance is a neo-liberal idea that seeks to convert basic socio-economic goods into market goods.
The fundamental right to life, liberty and food is not dependent on one’s social or economic status. Article 21A places education in this category as well. Education is one of the few avenues seen by the poor, as available for their children to break out of poverty.
Meaningful education for all children will not just benefit them as individuals but nurture an enlightened citizenry, which can counter the prevailing climate of hate and intolerance. Along with adequate funding, school autonomy, the professional development of teachers and community participation are essential to provide meaningful education.
None of this is impossible and there are sufficient examples to learn from, including in Karnataka. In many government schools in the state, teachers have taken the initiative to raise funds from the community of parents, village elite, from philanthropies and even business entities to develop infrastructure.
School Management Committee members bring produce from their fields to supplement the midday meal in the school. Schools in districts like Dakshina Kannada and Madikeri, for instance, get useful support from such school committees.
But this is the equity challenge. Where communities are relatively well-to-do, they can support the schools. However, it is in the more socio-economically backward areas such as North East Karnataka and Chamarajnagar that children flock to government schools. Hence, there is no real alternative to government funding.
Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh have also taken strong steps to support their public education systems.
Kerala has initiated the Public Education Rejuvenation program and has massively invested in government school infrastructure. Delhi, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have invested in renewing the physical infrastructure (repairing, painting school buildings) and all three states have seen periods of movement of students from private schools to government schools (even pre-Covid), contrary to the trend seen in other states.
Tamil Nadu has been the pioneer in supporting child nutrition and health, it was the first state to begin the state wide midday meal scheme; recently it expanded this programme by providing breakfast as well.
Karnataka must consider these experiences and look at funding and providing for education to fulfill the aims of the Right to Education Act.
Gurumurthy Kasinathan is a teacher educator and member of the National Coalition on the Education Emergency.
This article was originally published in the Scroll Media, read it here.