The case of a New Delhi girl who has challenged the Right to Education (RTE) Act in the courts may be of minor interest given the scale of national controversies erupting all around us. But it tells us a lot about what is wrong with policy making in government.
Shreya Sahai is schooled at home, part of a growing band of children whose parents believe are better off studying outside an education system that values learning by rote above all. Such an education becomes illegal because the new law makes it compulsory for all children between six and 14 years of age to be enrolled in a formal school.
Parents who have the knowledge to teach children at home usually embrace home schooling; it is a privilege of the rich. However, the RTE Act can also do great harm to children at the other end of the social spectrum, for example children of migrant farm workers who get their education in temporary schools managed by activists. There are also fears that unregistered private schools in urban slums could be closed down despite the fact that they often provide poor children with a better education than government schools in the same neighbourhood.
The RTE Act offers us a microcosm of the problems with policy design. The overarching goal is usually a commendable one. The need to give all Indians an education is unquestionable. The flaws build up after that. First, there is already a huge increase in school enrollment in the past ten years thanks to the very successful Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, so the focus in the next ten years should be on improving the quality of education.
Second, the government has confused education with schools -- the policy goal and the instrument to meet it -- at a time when new technologies could make learning out of the school system more viable. A vast majority will continue to learn within schools, but the RTE Act shuts out all other options. Getting stuck with only one institutional option is not a good strategy. Beneficiaries should be allowed to choose how they want to get their education.
We see something similar in the proposed legislation on the right to food. The National Advisory Council refuses to consider alternatives to the dysfunctional public distribution system, and especially a scheme of cash transfers that will allow poor families to choose what to buy.
Underlying this approach to public policy is a combination of good intentions and an arrogant belief that citizens cannot be trusted to make the right choices -- on how to educate their children or what food to buy for their families.
Should policymakers trust the poor more? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org