What is “public" about public education? Schools that are funded largely by tax revenues generated by the State, and run by the State through any of its bodies are called public schools. Such a system of schools is what constitutes public education. This commonly shared understanding is usually quite adequate. However, this notion deserves closer scrutiny, with people’s expectations from education soaring and delivery falling way short.

So, what is “public" in public education? At its core, it is about being equally available to all. It is also about people coming together to further the public good through education. So, the word “public" has at least two aspects: for whom—equally for all; and, for what and why—for the public good.

With these meanings of “public", it becomes apparent that the State may be well suited to conduct such education. Nevertheless, state education is a mechanism and not always the same thing as public education. For example, in a totalitarian state, the state school system indoctrinates students to support the regime and its grip on power. This is state education, not public education, because it is not for the good of people at large.

Viewed from this perspective, the importance of public education, particularly for a democracy, starts becoming clearer. To build and keep a democracy, a society needs the capacities and commitments that arise from public education, which serve a dual and entwined purpose—of socialization, for all people to be good citizens, and for all citizens to be equal and empowered.

If the curriculum were to change to suit the idiosyncratic needs of certain groups, or bend to ideology, ignoring truth, public education would no longer be public, since that would not further the public good. It could also get undermined insidiously, energized by notions like “education for the economy", “education for employability", and so on. In themselves, these sentiments are unexceptionable. Corrosion happens when these reflect an implicit or explicit intent to give primacy to the economic aims of education over all else.

Economic aims are important to public education. For citizens to be equal and empowered, their economic well-being and capacity for achieving the same are crucial. But narrowing expectations, curricula and practices to serve economic aims as the top priority gnaws away at public education. It makes education serve the market and its dominant groups, not the public good.

Now, let’s move on to the oft-discussed matter of public and private schools and whether private schools can deliver public education.

In theory, a public-spirited private school can mirror public education if it follows a curriculum that is designed for the public good and is equally available to all, irrespective of socio-economic status. The second condition cannot be met by private schools if they recover their costs from students, since this would exclude the economically disadvantaged. This has led to the notion of publicly-funded private schools, which can then purportedly offer public education.

Undoubtedly, we can find several public-spirited private schools. But most private schools are profit-minded, not public-spirited. For entrepreneurs, a school is just another enterprise. This is natural, particularly when education by its very nature grants asymmetric power to schools over parents and students. Too many abuse this power to cut every cost and enhance every revenue stream with mere lip service to education. Such schools do not provide equal access to all. They also create significant social barriers of exclusivity.

Only if we close our eyes, ears and minds can we deny this reality of private schools in India. On the matter of “learning levels", as evidence has mounted, it has become clear that private schools do not have better educational outcomes than public schools, if compared on equal terms. This is not unique to India, but a global phenomenon. So, increasing the number of private schools, by state funding or otherwise, results in no improvement in learning at the education system level, but only to greater inequalities.

This should not be a surprise. It can be anticipated if we keep sight of the fundamentals and do not get swayed by market-fundamentalism. And one of those fundamentals is that private entities establish and run schools, with a few notable exceptions, for private purposes—profit, prestige, and political influence—while wearing a thin veil of commitment to the public good. Entities that are neither established nor run for the public good cannot miraculously produce the public good against their basic intent. Private schools cannot deliver true public education.

So, a public education system can only be on the basis of a system of state schools. A state schooling system may not always offer public education, but public education cannot happen without a sound state schooling system. This is critical, since public education is foundational to all efforts at developing a good society and vibrant democracy.

*Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd