New Delhi: There is an irony to Shiksha’s life. Her name means education in Hindi, but this mother of three has never attended school.
That is one of the reasons she is keen that her children don’t miss out on opportunities she did not have. On a monthly income of Rs2,000 that her husband brings home from his job in a nearby factory, Shiksha, who uses one name, has made sure that Geeta, 17, Mukesh, 14, and Aarti, 11, attend state-run schools and is dutifully paying the monthly fees of about Rs15.
A few days ago, while standing in the milk line in Delhi’s Sultanpuri, located in narrow lanes where vehicles cannot pass, Shiksha heard the magic words “school” and “fees,” which made her run home and drag her oldest and most reliable child out to fill out some forms that held the promise of better education.
The form is for a school voucher system being introduced in Delhi’s poor areas by the Centre for Civil Society, a non-government organization that advocates market-based solutions. The first of the vouchers are yet to reach parents–only 400 parents will be selected to get vouchers of Rs300 per month per child. Its president Parth J. Shah returned to India from the US, where he taught economics at the University of Michigan, to start the NGO. He says it has a flood of 1.25 lakh applications for the vouchers.
The system gives parents a voucher they can submit to a school of their choice.
Vouchers come to India at a time even as they face bitter court battles in the US. Their effectiveness is also being debated in Peru, Chile, Columbia, even Sweden, where vouchers are funded by taxpayers’ money.
In India, the Centre for Civil Society is funding vouchers through individual donations, but says it wants responsibility to ultimately shift to the state.
“Right now, it is just a pilot project. For its practical implementation, it has to be funded by the government,” said Shah, who has been on a vigorous six-month campaign to get his voice heard in the powerful circles in education. He has met economists and members of Parliament, besides making presentations to groups such as the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) at the recent education summit.
The new CII president, and chairman and CEO of Bharti Enterprises Ltd, Sunil Mittal, has said education heads his priority list. “That’ll be my big drive. Education is very regulated today and there are issues like private participation in the education area, foreign universities, corporate universities...” he said in an interview with Mint.
Shah has been described by critics as a right-wing activist against state-run education. He defends himself by saying the voucher system is not against government schools and has not got a single teacher fired in any country—a criticism frequently leveled against it. “Vouchers just break the monopoly of government schools on education of the poor,” he said.
In her dimly lit bedroom, decorated with a shelf of shining kitchen utensils, Shiksha is unaware of Shah’s lobbying efforts. But she knows that the struggle for a good school for her children is limited by her purchasing power.
“Whatever money I can spare goes for their education,” said Shiksha. Geeta, her oldest who helped fill out the form, gets private tuition in mathematics, a hurdle she did not clear in her recent exam. She also receives expensive training at a beauty parlour nearby so she has a career option—but she won’t be allowed to earn because “neighbours will talk”, her mother said.
Shiksha’s family typifies what Shah considers his battleground, the people he must win over for the programme to succeed. They want an alternative to state-run schools but cannot afford anything better. Shah says vouchers will give them the freedom to choose. “Vouchers force government schools to reform as they have to compete for students,” Shah said.
However, not everyone is convinced. The Economist reported this month that in the gruelling battle to improve America’s schools, no reform faces greater resistance than school vouchers. Teachers unions and their allies argue that government schools will be undermined if parents can use taxpayers’ money to send their children elsewhere. The other major criticism of this system is questioning whether it really improves the quality of education, the main flaw of state-run schools. Among Shiksha’s children, 11-year-old Aarti likes her current school, the state-run Rajkiya Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, a Hindi medium school. But when asked to read a sentence from her Hindi textbook, she struggles.
“I have seen that school. It has no discipline, teachers don’t teach and children are wandering outside”, said older sibling Geeta. Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya could not be reached for comment.
Education officials in India are worried that vouchers may sharpen the debate on state versus private sector in education—without improving access. “The private sector has chosen to work outside, rather than with the state, in education,” said Krishna Kumar, director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government-run body that sets the curriculum for 8,000 government and private schools in India. “If there is no government school system left, then the private school system is bound to be exploitative.”
Experts warn that the jury is still out on whether vouchers can save struggling schools and students. “The results are quite mixed,” said Chris Winch, professor of educational philosophy and policy in King’s College in London, who has worked in education for 35 years. “While there is evidence that vouchers are popular in some parent groups, there is no evidence of raised academic standards”.
Shiksha’s family, though, says they are willing to take a chance. Geeta has advised her mother to use the voucher to get Aarti into another school.