Launched with great fanfare last year, the Right to Education (RTE) Act is facing challenges. The example of a 14-year-old child, from a relatively underprivileged background, in Gurgaon is a case in point.
The RTE law provides for free and compulsory education for all children 6 to 14 years of age. Sections 3(1) and 3(2) of the Act clearly spell this right. But as with almost all legislation, the devil is in the details: the rules that make the law operational. In the case of RTE, the complexity of the law, one that tries to fix serious structural flaws in education for the very young, makes this a daunting task.
In this case, there are several such features. The child is in the last year of the age bracket for free education under RTE. His father, a postman, was until recently covered by a government scheme that allowed him to send his child to a private school for free as his salary was under Rs1 lakh per year. A pay commission-mandated wage revision gave the school a reason to throw out the child unless his father shelled out Rs23,000 per quarter. No wage revision in the life of a postman can enable him to do that. Delhi’s education minister, Arvinder Singh Lovely, insisted the school was right. He modified his statement a day after a newspaper report on the subject was published.
Overlapping laws and schemes, bureaucratic attitudes and the usual approach to have a blunt cut-off “line” to define who is poor and who is not, are on ample display in this episode. Even with carefully designed laws, and RTE is not one, uncaring attitudes can kill the law in spirit, if not its letter.
One way to counter these problems would be to align the incentives of all the stakeholders under the law. These include private schools, government schools, the education bureaucracy, students and their parents. Private schools are able to provide better quality education as they have the right price incentives to do so. It may seem grossly unjust when they seek to throw out a student who cannot pay them fees. But at another level, a free-market agent cannot be blamed for complaining about price incentives being taken away. Unless the government does so, such cases will continue to recur.
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