Home >Opinion >Basic education: beyond school choice

In a previous column, I wrote about the paper published by Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California at San Diego and Venkatesh Sundararaman of the World Bank, titled The aggregate effect of school choice: evidence from a two-stage experiment in India. In this study, the researchers collaborated with the Azim Premji Foundation, giving out vouchers to state school students to attend a private school of their choice. The results were, in most reviews, pitched as an endorsement for private schools, based primarily on the following headline results:

1. Similar outcomes: In terms of learning outcomes of children, private schools do nearly as well (or as badly, depending on your preference) as each other as state schools.

2. With more inputs: Private schools do more than state schools in terms of inputs—“longer school day, a longer school year, smaller class sizes, lower teacher absence, higher teaching activity, and better school hygiene."

3. But at lower cost: However, private schools operate at a mean cost per student that is significantly lower than their state school counterparts—in this case, less than one-third.

4. And they can absorb more students: The influx of voucher-enabled additional children in private schools did not have any adverse effect on the children already enrolled in the these schools.

Mint has carried both sides of the story, including the celebratory The conclusive case for school choice, and a far more balanced review of the research findings, in The ideology of education. In this column, I look further into this debate, focusing on the policy implications for basic education in India. My position is more in line with those who have advocated some caution in reading the results as unqualified support for private education as effective and cost-effective. Here are the main points I want to make.

On the assumption of free choice and competition: We are far away from a scenario (especially in rural areas) of free market competition in primary education. The presence of a couple of private schools does not change this fundamentally. In areas with sparse population, we cannot expect multiple private schools to set up shop that will expand choice and truly compete with each other, along with competing with the much-maligned state school. This will have an impact on the incentives that private schools face.

On incentives: Private schools may currently be delivering outcomes comparable (or better) to state schools at a lower cost, but can we be sure that this will continue to be the case if the state introduces a system of vouchers which enables school choice? Consider this: given that state schools are free and private schools have to compete for extremely scarce household resources, they are incentivized to be as productive as possible. Private schools also possibly face greater accountability pressure from families who expect returns for their hard-earned money.

If the government introduces a universal school-choice voucher, the resultant household-level decision becomes significantly different in magnitude. As a result, being for-profit entities, private schools can focus on delivering results that are just as good or marginally better than state schools. Any expectation that we may have of innovations within the private sector will never be realized.

On quality: In the Muralidharan and Sundararaman study, the main secret behind the lower costs in private schools seems to be low-paid, under-qualified teachers. At the same time, the paper points out that education quality can be thought of as a result of teacher qualifications multiplied by teacher efforts. Thus, while one part of that equation speaks to teacher management and supervision, the second half of the equation equally significantly refers to the training and qualifications of teachers themselves.

Thus, while private schools may realize comparable or better learning outcomes at lower grades, we have little assurance that this will hold in higher grades, where a teacher’s mastery of a subject becomes more important. Teachers’ unions may hold frustratingly high levels of political clout and block all attempts at reform, but we really cannot just substitute teachers with poorly-skilled attendants.

On the government divesting from education: I do not believe anyone can rationally argue that the government needs to divest from education, especially basic education. If a government embraces a system of school vouchers, it assumes expanded oversight responsibilities. Regardless of their present capacity, by funding private education, neither is the government off the hook for improving quality of its own schools (and national education overall), nor can it ignore the operations of private schools that function under its watch. As Anurag Behar has repeatedly stressed in his columns, there cannot be a substitute to a good public education system.

On the way forward: The debate is pitched as policymakers needing to support public or private education. It is not clear that the policy debate should be a choice between public and private (financing, provision and regulation of) education. Is there scope for genuine partnerships between the public and private sector? Do partnerships only mean vouchers—public money to private providers?

If we accept that the government is weak at delivering education outcomes, do we expect it to do well in delivering funding and regulation to a sensitive sector such as basic primary education?

There are several questions here. Surely we cannot shy away from working towards the answers or hinder the path to an answer with false dichotomies.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a consultant with over seven years’ experience in the implementation and evaluation of development interventions.

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