Columnists such as Gurcharan Das keep telling us that our public schools are a mess. Are they, really? Are there counterexamples to this assertion? There certainly are, and they are called Kendriya Vidyalayas. As a group, these schools (together with Jawahar Vidyalayas) do even better than private schools in the examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Evidently, there are some things that are being done right in these schools that are not done well in so many other public schools being run by the state governments. What might they be?
Whatever they are, centralization is not one of them. All the KVs -- some 860 of them! -- belong to one monolithic organization: the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, headquartered in Delhi. With that out of the way, let me offer two possibilities that could explain the difference between KVs and other public schools. The first is financial resources: All KVs have pretty good -- not fancy, but adequate -- infrastructure: classrooms, blackboards, desks, labs, playgrounds, play kits, etc. Oh, yes, they also have separate toilets for boys and girls! And, yes, teachers show up for work every day! At the state-level public schools, particularly in rural areas, some (or all!) of these resources are missing.
Clearly, KVs command a lot of resources that other schools can only dream of. This is mainly because of their mandate: they are meant primarily for children of Central Government employees who keep getting transferred all over India, sometimes in the middle of the school year. Their admission policies reflect this mandate; they have a detailed priority list describing who has a higher claim to a KV seat than the others. "Outsiders" can claim only those places that are left out after taking care of children of employees of armed forces and central government ministries and departments. The competition for these limited number of left-over seats is very intense, indeed.
This line of reasoning leads us to the second factor: stake-holder interest. This interest is largely hidden from the public eye. It erupts only when something negative happens to the KVs. For example, if the general funding level (and therefore, quality level) goes down, the government will have a revolt on its hands from its army of bureaucrats and clerks and peons!
One of the things that infuriate me about Gurcharan Das and his ilk is the fact that they dismiss oh-so-casually all our public schools without looking into the differences among them, and the underlying causes for these differences. In their zeal for privatized education (and its public support through a voucher program), they use a very broad brush to tar the entire public school system.
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Kuffir offers a different line of criticism for this privatized education scheme:
every time i read choice in this debate over schooling in india, about different schools for different classes, i hear caste, and i hear different schools for different castes. and i think: why don't we carry this idea forward, why don't we have different nations for different castes?
i've seen mr.gurcharandas arguing on talk shows on reservations and couldn't help thinking: he should visit india some time. and find out how a dalit is different from a kamma. or a kammari. or a kurmi. or how yechury yesobu can't be sitaram yechury. and why they both need to go to the same school.
I certainly see this as a very serious problem with privatized school system: disparities are inherent in this market-led scheme. In the public school system, one can think of corrective mechanisms which can minimize these disparities. The present disparities between KVs and the other public schools tell us the direction in which our government ought to move; it is the job of politics -- us, really -- to find a possible way forward. It's a pity that folks like Das are unwilling to participate in the debate about how to improve our public school systems.
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In a pretty comprehensive post, Dweep Chandana "evaluates if education is also amenable to privatization," and tests the underlying assumptions behind the assertions of superiority of privatized education. Privatization enthusiasts are not going to be happy at all with his conclusions!
The preceding [analysis] suggests that a private system is not a sufficient condition to better quality and access. Is it, however, a necessary condition? Or, is there another way of solving the problem through a public system?
There is no better argument that the same results are possible from a public system than China. [...]