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Right to Education: Making it an undeniable right of every child seems eons away

In a landmark judgement last week, the Supreme Court set aside all the arguments that questioned the applicability of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 to private schools, especially those receiving no financial support from the government in any form.

Upholding the constitutional validity of the law which came into force in April 2010, the apex court made it clear that it was applicable to all the schools, except unaided minority schools.

It observed that the law envisaged a “reciprocal agreement” between the State and the parents, and it placed an “affirmative burden” on all stakeholders in the civil society. So, an obligation on the unaided non-minority schools to admit 25 per cent children from the disadvantaged groups and weaker sections in Class-I was not an “unreasonable restriction”.

The government has hailed the apex court’s decision, saying it brought clarity to the provisions of the Act. But, parents and private school managements across the country remain apprehensive as to how exactly the court’s verdict was going to affect them.

One of the prime concerns of many private school owners is whether the government will adequately compensate them for admitting children from marginalised sections and providing eight years of free elementary education to them. The parents, on the other hand, are worried if the school managements would shift the financial burden on them by increasing the fees for the paying students.

The RTE Act stipulates that schools providing free and compulsory elementary education shall be reimbursed the expenditure to the extent of per-child-expenditure incurred by the state concerned, or the actuals charged for a student, whichever is less.

This in effect means the amount of reimbursement made by the government will not be adequate for those private schools charging fees higher than that of the government schools.

There are many schools in urban areas, especially in big towns and metro cities across the country, which have per-child education budget much higher than those in the government schools. There is every possibility that schools, especially those operating in low surplus, will consider shifting the burden of providing free education to children from marginalised sections on to parents of other children by increasing the fee.

“As 25 per cent children from disadvantaged and economically weaker sections are accepted, the school budgets will be affected as there will be fewer full fee-paying students whereas the costs will remain the same. The schools will have an option of settling for lower profits, if any, or passing on some of the losses to full fee-paying parents by way of a fee hike. Most schools will end up doing a mix of both,” Sujit Bhattacharyya, Director of Indus World Schools, told Deccan Herald.

For schools, which operate at a “very low or negligible” surplus, there will be no option but to pass on the cost to other parents. Schools which are doing very well and making a reasonably healthy surplus may be able to absorb some or all of the costs, he added.
However, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal is not convinced with the contention that school fee should be increased to meet the situation, suggesting that there could be other “ways and means” to raise resources.

“You have many corporations who are committed to corporate social responsibilities with 2 per cent of their entire turnover (to spend on this head). Schools can actually tap those resources, so that there is no burden on parents,” he suggested.

There is also a proposal of the HRD Ministry to subsidise uniforms and text books in the 12th Five Year Plan. “We are trying to do it, even for the disadvantaged children in private schools. We want the government to subsidise their uniforms and the text books,” the HRD Minister said.

Sibal says that government’s contribution towards reimbursement of expenditure incurred by schools on students from marginalised sections will vary from Rs 6,000 to Rs 19,000 annually (Rs 500 to Rs 1,583.33 per month).

But, this does not give a clear picture. The reimbursement has to be made by the state governments to the schools functioning in their respective jurisdiction and the amount to be released will depend on the per-child-expenditure on education incurred by the state concerned. The centre will bear 65 per cent of the expenditure while remaining 35 per cent will come from the state’s coffers.

Per-child expenditure

According to a formula worked out by the HRD Ministry, the total annual recurring expenditure incurred by the appropriate government, from its own funds, and funds provided by the central government and by any other authority, on elementary education in respect of schools established, owned or controlled by the said government or local authority, divided by the total number of children enrolled in all such schools, shall be the per-child-expenditure incurred by the government.

Hence, the amount of reimbursement against the expenditure incurred on students from disadvantaged and weaker sections would differ from state to state. The Delhi government spends Rs 14,300 per child per annum, but this may not be the same in case of, say, Karnataka.

A comparison of the annual expenditure on reimbursement and the eight per cent annual increase in expenditure stipulated by the Finance Ministry for release of subsequent installments under the 13th Finance Commission grant indicates “adequate availability of funds” for states to absorb the cost of reimbursement towards providing free education to children from marginalised sections.

The HRD Ministry officials too express confidence that there will be no shortage of funds towards reimbursement against 25 per cent quota in schools “at least in the initial three years”. Nevertheless, they accept that much more funds will be required for effective implementation of the Act in the future.

An enhanced outlay of Rs 2,31,233 crore has been sanctioned by the Centre for RTE-Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan combined for the period 2010-11 to 2014-15 which takes care of additional funding requirement for implementation of RTE Act which includes additional teachers.

Funds shortage

But, the fact is that the right to free and compulsory education programme has been plagued by shortage of funds. The budgetary provision made in the last two years is only half of what was proposed by the HRD Ministry. While the ministry received Rs 21,000 crore in 2011-12 instead of Rs 43,903 crore, the allocations were only marginally increased to Rs 25,000 crore for 2012-13.

Moreover, the budgetary provisions made so far do not include any expenditure head towards reimbursement of money to private schools against implementation of 25 per cent quota. Ministry officials say, a separate head will now be created under this head only when the states’ annual work plan comes for approval.

Apart from this, the RTE Act has given a wide description of disadvantaged groups and weaker sections which has to be clearly specified by the state governments concerned.  
The Act says that disadvantaged group means a child belonging to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, socially and educationally backward class or such other group having disadvantage owing to social, cultural, economic, geographical, linguistic, gender or such other factor, as may be specified by the appropriate government, by notification. Weaker section means a child belonging to such parent or guardian whose annual income is lower than the minimum limit specified by the appropriate government, by notification.

But, the law does not specify the order of preference to be followed by the schools while admitting children from disadvantaged groups and weaker sections. It has left it to the governments concerned to decide and specify in the RTE rules.

 

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