De-privatising schools - Demonetisation equivalent reform in school education

Noises of demonetisation proposals since past few years were ignored. It was thought that such proposals don't merit any attention. Finally, it ended up happening. After it happened, people are now finding post-facto justifications. 

May be if we had paid enough attention to these early noises and snubbed it off in the initial stages itself, we wouldn't have had reached this stage.

In this context, may be it's worthwhile to think of other similar ideas floating around, and discuss them in detail now itself, so that we prevent such situations in future.

In the context of school education, there's one reform idea floating around since long. The proposal is to ban all private schools (de-privatise?) and force everyone to attend public schools. This proposal is also gaining ground slowly. Recently, Allahabad High Court ordered IAS officers and public representatives to send their children to public schools.

Like demonetisation, de-privatisation of schools has potential to cause huge disruption and there are arguments on its benefits. This post lays out the arguments from both sides, just to structure the debate.

Note that school education is supposed to be not-for-profit in India. So, the world private has a different meaning here - it means non-government ownership of schools.

De-privatising school education

The reasoning for de-privatising school education is that lack of accountability is the reason for dysfunctional public schools. Part of the reason is because the elite who have the 'voice' have shifted to private schools, weakening accountability structures. 

The fact that government teachers don't send their kids to the very school in which they work, is counter intuitive. It indicates their trust on the their own schools and performance. Imagine a chef noting eating the food cooked by himself/herself because s/he knows that its quality is poor.

It follows from this reasoning that if we were to bring all these people back to public schools, a major problem would be solved. If a child of an MLA or an IAS officer studies in a public school, imagine its functioning! It's similar to the chef example. If the chefs are forced to eat only the food cooked by themselves, it would force them to cook better food.

Famous economist Albert Hirschman gave an early theoretical framework to such proposal using what's called the "Exit-Voice-Loyalty" framework.  In simple words, people react differently to dysfunctional organisations, of which they are part of. Some people simply "exit" in search of better avenues. Some people stay within the organisation but "voice" their concerns. In some cases people turn "loyal", hoping that their loyalty will be rewarded.

This simple framework has good explanatory power to understand aspects like emigration, functioning of business organisations etc. In context of public school education, Hirschman argued that massive "exit" reduces accountability in important areas like school education. In such contexts, monopoly of public institutions is preferable because it preserves the accountability structures.

Will de-privatisation necessarily work?

There are three obvious arguments against the de-privatisation proposal.

One, there is a normative argument that de-privatising education impinges upon the liberty of citizens to educate their children in the way they prefer.

Two, the timing of implementation of this policy. It's one thing to pursue the 'only public schools - no private schools' path, if we are building a school system from scratch on a clean slate. It's a different ball game when there's already a significant section of private schools existing in the system, and we are re-setting the system to go back to 'only public schools- no private schools' stage. There are huge disruption costs involved in the latter situation.

Three, de-privatisation reduces the diversity in schooling systems. There's no 'one good method of education'. Hence, the diversity is preferable. De-privatisation hurts innovation by enforcing an artificial homogenous system.

Beyond these obvious arguments, there are deeper reasons that lead to skepticism about the effectiveness of such proposal.

One, the de-privatisation proposal presumes that public school system is a tightly-knit network and that accountability measures in one school transmit equally to other schools. It may not be necessarily true. This has implications for the effectiveness of the 'only public schools' policy because it is likely that the elites are going to be concentrated in few schools and may not be present in all schools. It's for two reasons.

a) Most elite (IAS, public representatives) are concentrated in urban areas. It thus excludes a vast majority of schools where there won't be any students of elites, especially those in rural areas.

b) Even within urban areas, there are also geographical constraints to education market - one would not send children to very far away schools. Given that housing in urban areas is segregated as per socio-economic status, it may still end up happening that schools in high-income localities are likely to have only children from those backgrounds and schools in low-income communities may have students of only those profiles.

If the 'de-privatisation' policy is to be effective, accountability in high income localities has to transmit to those in low-income localities. This may not happen.

Unlike other sectors, outcomes at local level are as important as aggregate outcomes in school education. It means that outcomes at each school level are as important as the aggregate outcomes. The higher quality in one school can't be a compensation for the poor quality in another school.

Two, even within schools that elite's children study, schools may respond differently as per profiles of children. It's well known that the socio-economic profile of students play a role in their outcomes. It thus calls for a different approach to engage these children. It often involves higher effort.

In responding to elites, schools may just focus on low-effort way of ensuring outcomes of elites, while ignoring the high-effort process required to engage children of non-elite parents.

Three, a mere increase in accountability to public may not yield results. Increasing school's accountability to public as 'the' solution presumes that teachers already know what's to be done and they are deliberately not doing it. Hence, increasing accountability will make them do those things. But, it needn't necessarily be true. Teachers may not know the right thing to do, they require training and our training systems are dysfunctional. In such contexts, merely increasing accountability may not help.

However, one can still counter argue that ensuring accountability is the first major step and the rest steps follow automatically. For instance, elite pressure will force school systems to restructure their teacher training system to address parents' needs and so on. Such optimistic view needn't turn out to be so in reality.

For instance, in this famous study, parents were given information on low-learning levels of children. Also, village education councils were made to meet regularly to ensure accountability mechanisms. The hypothesis was that such improvement in accountability would yield outcomes. But the study found that it didn't necessarily result in positive outcomes. It highlights the limitations of accountability through public participation.


Overall, there is a strong normative and good theoretical basis to de-privatise schools, forcing everyone to study in public schools. At the same time, there are also strong normative arguments and those of costs on the other side of the argument. 

Further, even if we ignore these normative arguments and costs involved in transition, there are reasons to be skeptical of effectiveness of 'all-public school' systems - elites' children may end up occupying only a handful of schools and the accountability enforced in these schools may not transmit itself automatically to other schools, schools may respond only to students of elites within school ignoring other children and there may be limitations to merely increasing accountability to public.

Even considering the limitations of the de-privatisation approach, some may still argue that 'some thing is better than nothing' - it may not bring change in all schools but it can bring change in at least some schools. Given that it's crucial to middle class and elite, this issue will always be in public discourse, unlike the current situation, and such increased attention can transmit into some action even in schools where elites' children don't study.

But will it happen and at what cost? School systems transformation takes a long time. Should children studying in otherwise functioning schools suffer in this transition? A decade is a generation of schooling.

There may be other genuine reasons for and against de-privatisation of schools and pursue 'only public schools' approach. In the context of growing popularity and appeal of this proposal, it is important to structure these debates and analyse the different possibilities now itself, rather than trying to do damage control after such decisions are taken or after they reach a popularity beyond control.


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