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Special Report
The charter schools alternative

Against the backdrop of a nationwide loss of confidence in government school education, a question being increasingly debated within the intelligentsia is whether the public interest would be better served if the management of failing government primary-secondaries is chartered or leased, to NGOs and private education providers. Summiya Yasmeen reports

During the past 100 days, since renowned Supreme Court legal eagle Kapil Sibal assumed stewardship of the Union human resource development ministry on May 29, there’s been a flurry of activity in Indian education, particularly the K-12 sector. A slew of initiatives have been announced to revitalise and de-stress school education, including making the sudden-death class X board exam optional in the 9,000 plus schools affiliated with the ministry-controlled Central Board of Secondary Examination (CBSE); replacing marks with a grading system, and decreeing an accreditation policy for primary-secondary schools.

But it’s pertinent to note that these much cheered initiatives apply to a mere 11,000 private sector schools affiliated with the elitist CBSE and Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) boards. The great majority of the 1.25 million government primaries and 80,000 plus secondaries country-wide have yet to experience the new minister’s reformist zeal.

The only initiative that touches the great majority of India’s 450 million children — the world’s largest child population — is the historic Right to Education Bill, 2008 (RTE) guaranteeing free and compulsory education to all children between ages six and 14, passed by Parliament on August 4 after seven years and seven drafts. But with the RTE Act mandating 25 percent reservation for children from under-privileged backgrounds in private schools, already hitting a roadblock with the cash-strapped Central and state governments squabbling over the proportion in which they should commit the Rs.178,000 crore required to implement the Bill, and private school managements threatening to challenge the quota imposition in the courts, India’s 171 million children enroled in the country’s ramshackle 1.33 million government primaries-secondaries will continue to receive worthless ritual education, “as the state by law may prescribe”.

It’s hardly a secret that government schools are crippled by a plethora of problems — inadequate infrastructure, teacher shortages and truancy, and poor learning outcomes being the most critical. On any given day 25 percent of the 5 million teachers employed in government schools are absent. Moreover, according to the Annual Status of Education Report 2008, published by Mumbai-based NGO Pratham annually, while student enrolment in primary education is rising, there’s been a steady decline in learning outcomes in rural government schools. The report found that only 41 percent of government school children across classes I-VIII in rural India can read simple stories (cf. 43.6 percent in 2005), and that only 27.9 percent across classes I-VIII can do simple division sums (cf. 30.9 percent).

Given that little learning happens in the nation’s government schools, no wonder there is a swelling exodus from them into privately promoted schools. ASER 2008 reveals that among 14-16 year olds, the proportion of children attending private schools has increased from 16.4 percent in 2005 to 22.5 percent in 2008. This increase in private school enrol-ment represents a 37.2 percent jump over the baseline of 2005, and is particularly striking in the states of Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Goa and Rajasthan.

Against this backdrop of a nationwide loss of confidence in government school education, a question being increasingly debated within the intelligentsia — even if not the private schools reform-focussed Union HRD ministry — is whether the public interest would be better served if the management and adminis-tration of failing government primary-secondaries is chartered, or leased to NGOs and private education providers. There is a growing awareness within academia and the small community of genuine educationists that the money government spends on its schools could be more effectively spent by proven education NGOs and private organisations.

This concept, known as charter schools, which originated in the US in 1991 and has now spread to several countries including Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and Canada, is being increasingly welcomed by govern-ments worldwide, as an innovative approach to saving failing public schools. The National Education Association (USA) defines charter schools as “publicly funded elementary or secon-dary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter”.

“Learning outcomes in India’s 1.33 million government schools are poor because the system doesn’t provide for autonomy and accountability,” says Dr. Parth Shah, president of the Delhi-based policy think-tank Centre for Civil Society (CSS, estb.1997). “The education departments of state governments control everything from syllabus design to teacher recruitment and training. There is zero scope for flexibility, creativity and learning. I strongly believe that we need to reduce the monopoly of government schools on poor students by offering them a choice of schools in which they wish to study. This can be done by giving them education vouchers to access private schools of their choice, and through charter schools. Both alternatives will continue to be funded by government but will offer the prospect of improving outcomes. Charter schools are a vibrant reality in the US and have enabled thousands of parents to exercise choice in selecting the most suitable schools for their children. If implemented in India, charter schools can offer parents dependent on poor quality government schools a way out of the system, and dramatically improve student learning outcomes. Unfortunately the Indian government is yet to accept this idea.”

To advocate the cause of education vouchers for economically disadvan-taged parents to access private schools for their children, CSS launched its School Choice Campaign in 2007. Under the campaign, India’s first school voucher project was initiated in Delhi on March 28, 2007 and school vouchers valued up to Rs.3,600 per year per student were awarded to 408 students in 68 municipal wards of Delhi.

“The school voucher is a tool to change the way governments finance the education of the poor. It is a coupon offered by the govern-ment that covers the full or partial cost of education in a school of the student’s choice. Under the voucher system, the money follows the student, not the school. On average government spends Rs.1,500-1,800 per child per month in public schools in Delhi and other metros. If this sum is given directly to parents/students they could access quality education in private schools of their choice,” says Shah.

Although the voucher system and charter schools expand parent/student choice, they differ inasmuch as the voucher-bearing student can opt out of the government school system, where-as the charter school system offers choice of upgrading and improving failing or sub-standard government schools in toto through the public-private partnership (PPP) model.

Both the voucher and charter schools concepts originated in the US and were given endorsement by the George W. Bush administration (2001-2008). The charter school idea was first proposed by Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and embraced by Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in 1988 when he called for reform of public schools by establishing “charter schools” or “schools of choice”. In 1992, the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota and since then they have multiplied at accelerating speed. Today 1.4 million students attend more than 4,600 charter schools in 40 states across USA.

According to a study conducted in 2003 by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, US charter school students are outscoring neighbouring public (local government) school pupils in math and reading tests. The nationwide study found that charter students on average exceeded public school students’ scores by 3 points in maths and 2 points in reading tests. Moreover, in a 2008 survey of charter schools by the Washington-based Centre for Education Reform, 59 percent of charters had waiting lists, averaging 198 students each.

For comparative and contextual purposes it should be noted that public schools in the US are well-funded and almost on a par with private schools as government expenditure on education is 6-7 percent of America’s $13 trillion (Rs.65,000,000 crore) GDP, as against India’s 3.5 percent of GDP of $1.4 trillion (Rs.5200,000 crore).

A favoured project of free-market ideologues, the charter school concept is driven by a simple logic: Give parents the choice and they will vote with their feet. Innovative charters will flourish, the rest will close shop and non-performing government schools will transform into charters. And as in any market, there will be winners and losers. But parents — who have the greatest interest in the education of children — will pick and choose the winners. And for charter schools to perform well, free them of bureaucratic and teacher-union restrictions; empower principals to hire and fire teachers and determine curriculum — control and command diktats that typically flow from state or local government education departments to government schools.

In the Indian context, with the post-liberalisation emergence of several highly-respected education focused NGOs such as Pratham, Deepalaya, Akshara Foundation, CRY, Akanksha and Parikrma Foundation, and professionally managed education groups and companies like Manipal K-12, Ryan Group of Institutions, Educomp Solutions and Everonn Education, there’s a strong case for public-private partnerships based on the US charter school model. To begin with, worst performing government schools could be chartered to reputable education NGOs and/or private education providers ready, willing and able to turn them around and guarantee improved learning outcomes.

“I think it makes very good sense for state and municipal governments to delegate the management and administration of their collapsing, non-performing schools to NGOs. This is already happening in the US under the charter school programme. We have been discussing this proposal with the Brihan Mumbai Corporation (munici-pality) for over a year without success. But yes, if given full control over management and staffing for a minimum of five years, we are ready and willing to assume the responsibility of sharply improving learning outcomes in government schools,” Shaheen Mistry, an education graduate of Manchester University (UK) and promoter-director of Akanksha (estb. 1991), a Mumbai-based supplementary education NGO, told EducationWorld two years ago (‘Should failing government schools be leased to NGOs?’ July 2007).

Fittingly, Akanksha, which pioneered the concept of utilising and converting office and school premises into after-hours learning centres for slum children and currently runs 57 learning centres with an aggregate enrolment of 2,500 children in Mumbai and Pune, is perhaps the first NGO countrywide to have formally signed a memorandum of understanding with the municipal corporations of Mumbai and Pune, to manage and administer six municipal primary schools under its ‘The School Project’.

It’s a well-kept secret that India’s first charter school — the K.C. Thackeray Vidya Niketan School, Pune — was chartered by the Pune Municipal Corporation to the Thermax Social Initiatives Foundation and Akanksha in 2007. Moreover last year Akanksha signed a MOU with the Brihan Mumbai Corporation to manage its Abhyudaya Nagar Municipal School. Currently Akanksha manages six municipal schools in Mumbai and Pune with an aggregate enrolment of 1,030 students and 50 teachers.

“These schools are being managed under public-private partnership agreements which require an NGO to partner with the municipal government to oversee the day-to-day operations of its schools,” says Vandana Goyal, an alumna of Claremount McKenna College, USA, and London School of Economics, and currently the Mumbai-based director of Akanksha’s The School Project.

“We can’t call them charter schools as they are largely funded by private donations with only the infrastructure, uniforms, textbooks and some school supplies provided by the municipality. For each school a MoU has been signed with the municipal authorities who have set Akanksha certain student learning achievement targets within the prescribed curriculum. However we have full autonomy to supplement content, use contemporary classroom pedago-gies, recruit and train teachers. Thus Akanksha is fully accountable to the municipal government to achieve learning standards and content requirements set by it. The first test results from our Vidya Niketan School in Pune indicate that class III students have bridged nearly 30 percent of learning gaps, performing almost at the national average by the end of the first year. We strongly believe that PPPs are the best way to achieve the goal of quality education for all,” adds Goyal.

A similar public-private partnership programme which has given a fresh lease of life to children from underprivileged and socially backward communities in the northern state of Uttarakhand (pop. 8.4 million), is the state government’s Pahal initiative. Modeled on the school vouchers programme, under the Pahal scheme, the state government grants education vouchers to children (six-14 years of age who are extremely deprived and homeless, such as rag pickers, scavengers, snake charmers, etc) to attend selected private schools which have signed PPP agreements with the state government. In the inaugural year (2007-08) of the Pahal initiative, 167 children availed state-sponsored vouchers to enrol in ten private schools. Last year the scheme was extended to Nainital, Doon and Udhamsinghnagar districts, under which 625 children were admitted into 17 private schools.

Santosh Devi, a daily wage worker in the Doon valley, whose eight-year-old twin sons Gaurav and Saurav have availed education vouchers to enrol in Dehradun’s Sneha Doon Academy, gives full marks to the Pahal scheme. “Education in a reputed private school was an impossible dream for us. But thanks to Pahal my children attend a good private school. This has given them hope and optimism to realise their dreams. The government school in our village is terrible and my children used to hate going to school. But now they are full of enthusiasm and performing well in class tests and exams,” says Devi.

According to Dr. Rakesh Kumar, the Dehradun-based state education secretary, the Pahal programme is being implemented in areas where there is no government school or Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) learning centre within one kilometre of habitations. “The Pahal initiative is a very successful public-private partnership between the Uttarakhand education department and 17 enlightened private schools in the state. While we give education vouchers valued at Rs.3,000 per year per child, private school managements contribute Rs.400-500 per child per year. The Uttarakhand government is very open to PPPs in education. We would be happy to explore the possibility of opening charter schools in the state. But to safeguard the interests of students in government schools, we will be looking for NGOs with established reputations in education provision,” says Kumar.

The enthusiasm to experiment with education vouchers and charter schools exhibited by the government of Uttarakhand — India’s most highly-ranked state in terms of education provision according to the Delhi-based weekly India Today (September 28, 2009) — is the exception rather than rule. Most state education bureau-cracies balk at the idea of diluting their control over government schools. The handful of PPPs operational country-wide ensure that no real power is devolved upon private sector partners.

A case in point is the Karnataka government’s school adoption scheme. Titled the School Nurturing Programme, it invites corporates and NGOs to ‘adopt’ one or more government schools in the state. However the prime focus of the partnership is on private funding of infrastructure upgrades, with private partners discouraged from intervening in teacher training and recruitment, and school management. Little wonder that since the school adoption programme was launched with much fanfare in 2001, only 9,000 of Karnataka’s 53,000 government schools have attracted sponsors, with most of them making one-time contributions for infrastructure upgradation.

“The School Nurturing Programme doesn’t confer any managerial responsibility on the private partner or NGO. Government teachers and princi-pals will not allow that to happen. The charter schools concept is definitely not acceptable to the state government,” says Dr. R.G. Nadadur, principal secretary, primary and secondary education of the Karnataka government.

In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu (pop. 62 million), there is similar  aversion to NGOs in public education and the charter schools concept in particular. Comments M.P. Vijayakumar, the Chennai-based former state project director of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan  programme and currently honorary advisor to the state government: “If the public school system is not performing well, the correct approach is to identify the reasons and address those issues squarely, not to create a parallel charter school system. What is the guarantee that these schools will not suffer the same problems as government schools? Moreover your presumption that all privately managed or NGO run schools perform well is a myth. In my analysis the main problem is obsolete, tedious pedagogies adopted by both govern-ment and private schools. Charter schools are not the remedy to this problem. The government is fully capable of addressing and solving the problems afflicting its schools.”

Such dog-in-the-manger attitudes of state and municipal governments, and particularly the reluctance of educrats to confer administrative and academic autonomy to NGOs, is rooted in the corruption and rent-seeking opportun-ities offered by the socialist develop-ment model. Politicians and education bureaucrats are unwilling to relinquish the control they have exercised for the past six decades over the languishing public education system. Plainly, they have too much to lose if the status quo is upturned, given that they rake in kickbacks from school construction and equipment companies, textbook printing rackets, teacher appointments and transfers, awarding good grades and fake certificates and sundry other rackets ubiquitous within India’s massive public education system, in which over Rs.150,000 crore is expended annually to little effect.

On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of NGO and private sector educationists are ready and willing to work with state and municipal govern-ments to resuscitate failing government schools and help them achieve learning targets, provided they are given sufficient administrative and academic autonomy, i.e per-pupil funding, and freedom to recruit and train teachers, design curriculums and classroom pedagogies.

"For over half a century government schools haven’t been able to deliver acceptable quality education to their students. This is a strong enough argument for them to exit school management altogether and pass the responsibility to proven NGOs. Several local government schools in Bangalore with good infrastructure are non-functional, because parents don’t want to send their children to low-performance institutions. We would be quite willing to revive and manage some of them with full accountability to government. But we must be given full managerial control for a definite period of time; freedom to recruit teachers afresh as per our terms; and assured funding on a per-child basis to cover the cost of teachers, materials and infras-tructure maintenance. Indeed, we have held discussions on this very issue with several education secretaries of the state government, but they haven’t led anywhere,” says Shukla Bose, an IIM-Calcutta alumna and once the most well-remunerated woman CEO in Indian industry. In 2003, Bose switched vocations to promote the Bangalore-based Parikrma Humanity Foundation (PHF). Today PHF runs four high quality, free-of-charge CISCE-affiliated English medium class I-X schools in Bangalore with an aggregate enrolment of 1,116 slum and underprivileged children.

However, Bose advises state/ municipal government authorities to choose their private and NGO partners with due diligence and deliberation. “In the past two decades the number of NGOs working in the school education sector has multiplied rapidly. The government must research and assess them thoroughly before entrusting them the task of transforming their failing schools into charters. They must ensure that these NGOs have proven track records in education provision,” warns Bose.

Although there’s a consensus among academics, educationists and NGOs that the country’s 1.33 million government schools — marked by crumbling infrastructure, unchecked graft, corrup-tion, teacher truancy and abysmal learning outcomes — require NGO intervention, they advocate a cautious approach to importing Western solutions such as the charter schools concept.

Comments Madhav Chavan, the US-educated founder director of the highly respected Mumbai-based education NGO Pratham (estb.1994) which runs after school programmes for 500,000 children in 43 cities across the country, and publishes its Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER): “Charter schools are not necessarily the answer to improving learning outcomes in government schools. Too many educators are looking for ready-made models, preferably from the West, which they believe can be layered on the top of the mess we already have. I believe that a school which has a strong management and/or head teacher, performs well. Decentralisation together with enablement and empowerment of school managements at ground level, and simultaneous and equal disempow-erment of district, state and central level government officials is a pre-condition of reviving failing government schools. Charter schools is one option. The question is how many NGOs, corporates and foundations will be able to run charter schools efficiently.”

While concerns over how the charter schools model will work in the Indian context are legitimate and require research and experimentation on a pilot basis, there can’t be any argument that the fastest way to achieve the ideal of quality school education for all is through greater NGO involvement and participation. The cash-strapped Union and state governments and their million schools, decrepit and below minimal standards in education provision, require infusion of best management practices, contemporary teaching pedagogies and ICT-driven learning strategies from NGOs and private sector educators.

Fortunately, there seems to be adequate awareness of this reality in the reforms-driven Union HRD ministry, even if not the state education departments. On August 11, Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal announced that the Central government intends to promote 6,000 model secondary schools in the next two years including 2,500 under the PPP model. “The 2,500 model schools, which will be better than the Kendriya Vidyalayas, will be built under the PPP model while 3,500 schools will be set up by the government. The nitty gritty of the PPP model will have to be worked out. We are going to have the private sector coming (sic),” Sibal informed media personnel after a meeting with the Planning Commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

According to sources in the HRD ministry, the government is examining several PPP models including the Whole School Management model in which full autonomy will be given to private partners to manage the 2,500 schools; and another involving private firms in infrastructure development for existing and proposed schools and allowing them to run second shifts in government schools.

Yet while devising PPP models to save India’s 1.33 million government schools, there is a strong case for the HRD ministry, education planners and academics to examine the tried and tested charter schools model and adopt its best features. Enlightened and facilitative government-private/NGO sector cooperation is an urgent imperative to reform and revive the country’s failing government primary and secondary schools, so that their 171 million students can compete on equal terms in the rapidly globalising Indian economy.

With Prachi Guron & Autar Nehru (Delhi); Neha Ghosh (Mumbai); Natasha Pathak (Dehradun) & Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)   

3070 Views | Add Comment | Show Comments (0) | Posted on: 5 Oct,2009
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