The debate of private versus public school has been raising concern over the past decade in India. The clear and obvious arguments on either side are that private school costs more than public school. So, this extra fee would be utilized for greater purposes such as better infrastructure, teaching facilities and so on.Only the ones who can afford this education are welcomed into the system, while the others are simply left behind without much of a choice. The poor are left with an illusion of choice; the only issue being affordability.
On the grass root level, it comes down to the question of what is considered the best choice by parents and what drives them to make this choice. According to Karthik Muralidharan, the choice is not as simple as private versus public school education scenario. It requires one more level of questioning – is education required at all? To answer this question, it is required to weigh the opportunity cost of losing daily wages in the short run to attend school, to achieve sustained income in the long run.
Recent studies show that this grim reality is a thing of the past, as there has been a rise in private school education for the poor. The notion that private schools are focused only on the rich or the elite, is losing its momentum when academics like James Tooley published his findings in his paper ‘notified slums’. It is noticed that in the recent years, something resembling an educational revolution is happening in many places. It was revealed in the research that, in the urban areas, the poorer section attends ‘budget’ private schools. These budget schools are usually establishments of the entrepreneurs of the region who bring in teachers as opposed to the public schools. These schools charge low fees making it affordable to the parents who earn minimum wages. This was noticed in the district of Mahbubnagar, in rural Andhra Pradesh where on average, half of the school children were in private school (Tooley, 2009).
This increase in the number of budget private schools is due to the increasing demand of poor families’ need to have ‘good quality’ private English medium education. According to the human development survey carried out in 2005, about 51% of children in urban areas and 21% in the rural areas were enrolled in these budget private schools. There is also a regional disparity in this growth; in states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, a growth is noted in these ‘mushroom’ private schools as compared to other states like Assam and Himachal Pradesh (Desai et al. 2010).These ‘mushroom’ private schools, as good as they are a service to the society, are yet very much unregulated and cater to the low-income houses, and there exists no reliable information on the exact number of schools in this sector. A.C. Mehta (2005) has provided necessary information which gives an estimate for this unregulated count. It is noted that these schools have mushroomed after the mid-1990s and more so, post-2000s. It was recorded that 2,640 schools were identified in various districts of Punjab in 2005, out of which only 16.4% were established before 1986, and over 30% were established in the short period between 2001 and 2005. This shows the growing importance of education among all sections of society and the need for budget private schools which provide ‘quality’ education.
Recent studies by Karthik Muralidharan and Michael Kremer (2008) have highlighted the contrast to the presumed reality regarding teacher attendance. Contrary to popular belief, the survey conducted in several rural schools in various states show that there is a perceived higher teacher activity and attendance in these private schools as compared to government schools. These low budget private schools are also known to provide ‘free places’ or ‘free education’ to those who cannot afford to pay the fees and are located in areas within the poorer sections of the villages,ensuring easy access to the students.
There are several arguments surrounding the debate; since these private schools are of a certain standard and given the poor performance of the government schools,many argue that these low budget schools should function without restrictions or regulations, which would hinder their sustained growth and to ensure a hopeful future. Further, it is argued that the government must focus on funding these low-cost budget schools rather than channelling excess money to public schools as the former has higher performance standards. This would provide them the necessary grounding needed for expansion and create a market for larger private investors, to increase the quality of these schools.
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