A couple of years back, at a blog meet, I was having a discussion with Anand, who used to blog at locana. He was trying to defend government schools. His defence went: “Not all government schools are bad. I went to one myself. Ok, it was a government school at a campus that was filled with professors, but still…”
I sputtered a bit but never got a chance to complete my response in the din of the meet. This post at Nanopolitan reminded me of that conversation. This is as good a time as any for a response, I suppose.
People argue that private schools will serve only the rich and never provide the same quality to the poor. When faced with evidence that government schools also provide good quality only to the rich and neglect to serve the poor, their views undergo a fascinating inversion. The success of private schools for the rich is evidence that they will serve only the rich. The success of government schools for the rich is evidence that hope is on the way for the poor.
Nonsense. Rich parents will demand, and get, good education for their children whether they go to private schools or government schools. If you set up a government school in an IAS officers’ colony, it will probably be among the best in India. If a teacher skips classes, or if there is peeling plaster or if there is a shortage of chalk to write on blackboards, a few phone calls to the appropriate authorities will be made and appropriate action will be taken. It is precisely when government services need to reach people who do not have access to these levers of power that there is a problem.
In fact, opponents of private schools never tire of reminding us that the reason private schools will not work (even with vouchers) is that the poor have little knowledge to evaluate the schools and are not empowered enough to demand better services from them. Won’t the same problems afflict government schools?
The market has a mechanism by which private schools will improve. We supporters of private schools claim that competition among schools will force them to improve in quality and reduce their costs. The market will educate, not just children, but also parents. Schools will advertise their quality, forced to copy one another’s best practices, and parents will talk to each other about the education their children are getting. No one expects this process to be quick, easy or painless. Along the way there will be many bad and dishonest schools, and many children will get sub-standard education. Opponents of private schools are so terrified that some children will get a sub-standard education that they are perfectly willing to condemn them to no education. The government’s zeal in shutting down unrecognized schools is matched only by its apathy towards actually improving government schools.
The solution, according to opponents of private schools, is to empower parents, so that they will demand and get better government schools. This is a rather severe case of deceptive advertising. The problem is that the market process is long, messy and untested. If you are going to advertise an alternative, you shouldn’t conceal the fact that your alternative will take just as long if not longer, will be just as messy if not messier and has been tried with no sign of it working.
Advocates of government schooling who recognise this problem have another solution to this. They say, let’s force everyone, not just the poor, to attend government schools. That way, the rich will be be forced to put pressure on the government to improve schools. Anand’s experience, our experiences with Kendriya Vidyalayas and with IITs tell us why this is a fallacious argument. If the rich are forced to use government services, they will force the government to improve the services that are provided to the rich. And while they are at it, they will vote themselves a nice subsidy to themselves out of funds meant for the poor.