Home/ Opinion / Azim Premji, please listen to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates

Dear Mr Premji,

You have generously donated thousands of crores of rupees to philanthropic causes, a substantial sum even by international standards. Your marquee initiative is the Azim Premji Foundation, which is focused on education.

Education quality is a gargantuan problem in our country, even as education access has been improving. The leading NGO Pratham has been publishing the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a credible survey measuring educational outcomes in our country. As the 2012 report recounts:

“In 2010 nationally, 46.3% of all children in Std. V could not read a Std. II level text. This proportion increased to 51.8% in 2011 and further to 53.2% in 2012. For Std. V children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children unable to read Std. II level text has increased from 49.3% (2010) to 56.2% (2011) to 58.3% (2012)....In rural India as a whole, two years ago about two thirds of all children in Std. V could not do simple division. In 2012 this number is close to three fourths."

On and on it goes, enumerating depressing statistics of falling educational outcomes.

You have stepped forward to address this abysmal state of affairs, and we applaud you for that. But we are concerned that some of your donations may not be helping India’s children, and perhaps are even harming them. Your foundation, at least in these very opinion pages, has been vociferously and frequently advocating against school choice—which is the government providing an option to the parents of millions of poor Indian children, letting them decide whether they want to send their son or daughter to a government or private school.

If it is a direct subsidy to students, school choice takes the form of scholarships or vouchers awarded to poor children and redeemable by the relevant school. If it is direct support to private schools, it can take the form of aid (but not necessarily on a per-student basis) or charter schools or other public-private partnership innovations.

A key roadblock to education reform is that government teachers cannot be fired right now (nor, for that matter, generously rewarded) based on their performance, because public teacher unions continue to oppose merit-based pay and performance accountability. It is not at all our case that common government teachers are somehow uncaring about their students—their incentives are simply antithetical to educational outcomes. The current system of primary and secondary education is a monopoly from the Licence Raj days—it is a system that brooks no competition.

It is possible that you have already perused the arguments of Milton Friedman, James Tooley and Parth Shah in favour of school choice and are still unconvinced. If so, let us tell you what Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have had to say on this issue. Men from your industry may convince you where “theoretical" and “ideological" academicians may have failed.

Steve Jobs: “I used to think that technology could help education. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology...It’s a political problem...The problems are unions...The problem is bureaucracy. I’m one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system...I have a...daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school….It was phenomenal...But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers—so it’s not about money at the teacher level....If we gave vouchers to parents...schools would be starting right and left...You could have a track at Stanford within the MBA program on how to be the businessperson of a school."

Bill Gates; “...honestly, if we thought there would be broad acceptance [of vouchers]...they have some very positive characteristics...parochial [private] school system, per dollar spent, is an excellent school system…[But] We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high."

The more cautious Mr Gates agrees that school choice in the form of vouchers is a better solution but has decided to back charter schools for now. At least they have more autonomy to hire and fire teachers than traditional government schools.

Your foundation’s CEO, Mr Anurag Behar, has written in this newspaper that a better “public education" system is the only way. We actually do not disagree on this point because we feel that this juxtaposition—school choice/vouchers vs. public/government education—is a false, contrived choice based on strawman arguments. As one can see with the example of charter schools, there exists a continuum of policy choices.

But it is important to emphasize that the government subsidizing poor parents to send their children to private schools free-of-cost with regulated curricula and admission practices (else, the government’s voucher can simply be made non-redeemable by non-conforming private schools) is in no way incompatible with a better public education system. Indeed, such regulated and subsidized schools, albeit privately-run, can and should form the backbone of a more efficient and equitable public education system. If in the process, some educational entrepreneurs get rich—so what?

For example, the government is no longer trying to exclusively run hospitals for the poor. In one of the most under-appreciated schemes of the UPA government, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the poor get de facto vouchers that can be used at private hospitals. Does that make RSBY perfect? No. But it does not make it any less a part of our public healthcare strategy. One can always play with semantics, but the government is still subsidizing the poor. It is simply relying on the private sector for the relevant service’s delivery.

The state has, in essence, separated “how much help" from “how to help".

Just in case you are wondering if concepts from the US will not work here, let us present you hard empirics from our own country. In our Mint column (“The conclusive case for school choice"), we had written about the results of the latest randomized controlled trials in Andhra Pradesh—the “gold standard" of social science research—conducted by Karthik Muralidharan of University of California, San Diego, and the World Bank’s Venkatesh Sundararaman (affiliated with MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab).

The results were clear—private schools’ educational outcomes were slightly better compared to government school outcomes and more astonishingly, their cost per student was lower by two-thirds. Imagine India’s low-cost private schools getting twice the money to spend on children as they do now—the lead over government schools in educational outcomes would widen, even if the outcomes do not increase linearly with the money spent. Moreover, the government would be saving money while improving quality.

According to ASER, the share of 6 to 14 year-old children in rural India enrolled in private schools rose from 18.7% in 2006 to 28.3% in 2012. In 2012, among all private school children (age 6-14), 57.9% were boys, showing a possible bias against girls—another problem that school choice can ameliorate. If these trends hold, more than half of the rural children will be attending private schools by 2018. School choice is not a “silver bullet", but the poor have already voted with their feet and are abandoning “free" government schools. Are we going to support them in their decisions or hurt them?

Mr Behar condemns these ideas as “privatopia". Mr Premji, “privatopia" would mean private schools getting no government subsidies. That is no one’s case here. Remember Kerala, the state with relatively better educational indicators? Over 60% of children attend private schools there. That is partly because many of those private schools are government-aided. School choice just takes this one step ahead—instead of having occasional ad hoc grants to selected private schools, vouchers simply standardize it on a per-child basis.

The case for school choice is strong. Even if you do not fully agree with Mr Jobs, and like Mr. Gates would like to be more “politically pragmatic", at least restrain your foundation from mounting a slander campaign against this very effective policy instrument. Yes, the money is yours to donate as you please and most of it is helping many, many needy children. But if some of your philanthropic efforts hurt the future of India’s children, it would be pertinent to bring that to your notice.

Yours sincerely,

Harsh and Rajeev

Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta are co-founders of the India Enterprise Council.

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Updated: 06 Jan 2014, 07:37 PM IST
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