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India’s poor shifting toward private schooling

By Staff Writer Indira Rayala ‘18

· Indira Rayala

Image from Wikimedia

For the past two decades, Holy Town High School has arguably done the job of the Indian government. Directed by M.A. Hakeem, this high school has educated thousands of poor students.  Holy Town classrooms are cramped and the school is otherwise stripped down; however, parents, who are residents of a low-income and predominantly Muslim neighborhood, continue to send their children. They are attracted by the low tuition ($2 dollars a month), the English-language curriculum, and the high standardized test scores. Such low-cost private schools dominate education in many areas in India. Hyderabad, where Holy Town High School is located, sports a population of 3.6 million and an estimated two-thirds of all students attend private institutions.

This choice to opt out of government services is usually reserved for the rich or the middle class, who can afford the private schools, hospitals, and housing compounds. Yet, with India’s recent economic expansion, an increasing number of India’s poor are scraping together money to allow their children a private education. This move is done to help their children escape poverty.

Education is one of India’s most pressing challenge-- half of its 1.2 billion population is under twenty-six-- and the lack of steady improvement in literacy rates could cripple long-term prospects. A majority of Indians still attend government school, but the expansion of private institutions has created parallel education systems. Many claim that government education is in severe disarray in several states. Teachers often fail to show up, rote drilling dominates instruction, and English, considered a prerequisite for most white-collar employment, is usually not the medium of instruction. Faced with sharp criticism, policymakers have enacted sweeping reforms to improve national education. The culmination of these efforts resulted in the Right to Education Act, which took effect April 2010 and declared that there was a constitutional right to schooling for every child from six to fourteen.

The emergence of private institutions arguably roughly coincided with the 1991 economic liberalization. In the past, government officials have often blamed rural apathy for India’s illiteracy rate, claiming families preferred to send their children to work and not the classroom. As the economy started expanding, however, the aspirations of low-income families changed. Now, supply of education, not demand, is considered a constraint. “Parents are seeing education as the passport out of poverty,” said Karthik Muralidharan, an assistant professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied Indian education.  

Entrepreneurs, big and small, have jumped at the chance to profit from the demand-driven new market for private schools. Alongside corporate education chains tailored to higher-income families, low-cost schools like Holy Town rapidly proliferated in poorer neighborhoods. This trend is evident in most major cities and is quickly spreading into rural India.

Calculating the exact number of private schools is tricky due to conflicting statistics. Government officials claim more than ninety percent of all primary schools are managed or financed by the government. In contrast, one government study says that about thirty percent of the 187 million students in grades one through eight now attend private schools. Some academic studies even suggest more than half of all urban students now attend private institutions.  

Muralidharan says, “In Mumbai, so many parents have pulled their children out of government schools that officials have started renting empty classrooms to charities and labor unions – and even to private schools.” In response, officials have dedicated far more money for new schools, hiring teachers and providing free lunch to students. Despite these changes, more and more parents are choosing private.

Such trends suggest that the Indian government need to continue reevaluating the public education system. Ideally with great improvement in the public education sector, people will send their children to government schools. This would lessen the financial burden of education that many low-income families face when choosing to go private. However, without tremendous change, the trend toward private institutions will continue to grow, casting major doubts on the feasibility of The Right to Education Act.

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