Last week, the Union minister for Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani, tweeted half-a-dozen policy measures her ministry is undertaking. Taken together they appear to be a grand plan to monitor and track schools, school children and all things education as minutely as possible.

There is a plan to monitor the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the flagship national programme for elementary education, another to track 200 million children in and out of school, a portal to aggregate information on all teacher education institutions, an expenditure portal for all data on school education, and a plan to evaluate all schools in the country, and to test children’s learning outcomes annually rather than every three years.

The flurry of tweets that came before 10 am on April 23 were a reaction to an article, published in the Times of India that morning, by the US-based commentator Sadanand Dhume, which said that Irani had “not exactly distinguished herself as minister for human resources development”. The article claimed that the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government was losing support among “the vocal middle class supporters who helped power it to office” for failing to match policy with politics and cited the lack of “education reform” and “failure to fix… the RTE” as a prime example of this problem.

Mindless policymaking?

The minister’s tweets may have been a reaction to the article, but they do not constitute a response to it. With no sense of irony they confirmed Dhume’s central criticism: that policy-making displayed “a lack of original ideas…” The bulk of tweets were about policy initiatives to measure things and managing information.

The one tweet that got the most play in the media was the plan for a day-by-day monitoring of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. An administrator of the education programme in a southern Indian state said this was mindless policy-making, designed to ensure that no one did any work other than collate data.

A five-state study on how governments monitor schools by Kiran Bhatty and others at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research found that head teachers and education officials whose job it is to offer academic support to schools already spend vast amounts of time collecting data for a large number of things like school enrolment, attendance, mid-day meals, and so on. They have to send this data in different formats filling multiple forms, from 11 in Karnataka to 23 in Himachal Pradesh. This is only for information collated annually.

The RTE bugbear

However, while Dhume’s assessment of the minister’s record is correct, the framing of the problems of education the government is not addressing and the concerns of the disaffected middle class is off the mark.

For instance, it is factually incorrect to say that the opposition to the Right to Education Act unites two groups of Modi supporters – market liberals and Hindu activists. It is only sub-sets of both groups who want the RTE to be thrown out. Many market liberals are not comfortable with for-profit education that they know has failed to deliver elsewhere in the world.

Of the Hindu activists, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mainstay, wants certain provisions tweaked including the exemption granted to minority institution from Section 12(1)(c) of the Act – which provides for a 25% quota for economically weaker students in private schools. But the RSS is opposed to the commercialisation of education and so is unlikely to sup with those whose solution is privatisation.

In support of his critique of the RTE, which he calls “possibly UPA’s single worst law”, Dhume cited private school administrator and London University professor Geeta Gandhi Kingdon as saying that the RTE is dragging Indian education backward because it places an emphasis on infrastructure, and not on learning outcomes. Very few, if any, people will disagree with her on that. But the trenchant attacks on the RTE are not simply about quality, they are often also against the economically weaker students quota, which gives poor children a shot at quality education.

For example, Gandhi Kingdon’s City Montessori Schools, a successful chain of private schools (with 50,000 students and 20 campuses in Lucknow, and listed in the Guinness book of records as “the world’s largest school”), went to court unsuccessfully against the 25% economically weaker students quota after courts quashed a favourable state government order mandating that EWS admissions to private schools were to be made only if there was no vacancy in government or government-aided schools. This inexplicable government order defeated the purpose and spirit of the economically weaker students quota provision.

RTE Section 12(1)(c) is effectively a voucher-based school choice system of the sort that market liberals usually support. It allows poor parents to pick a private school of their choice for their children. It was designed to pull poor children forward by giving them a chance to study in schools that deliver quality education.

Most quality private schools don’t want poor children as they feel they will bring standards down in a competitive market where board exam results are a marker of a school’s success. Private school owners are also concerned about the low reimbursements from the government for these quota students. Typical school fees for a City Montessori type school are Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 per month for nursery or class one. Most schools also charge an admission fee, or similar fees disaggregated under multiple heads, of Rs 25,000 or so. At present, in states like Uttar Pradesh, government reimbursements per economically weaker students child are only between 10% and 15% of the fee.

Another myth busted?

Another argument made repeatedly is that the RTE’s “list of onerous and often unrealistic requirements” have led to the closure of 5,500 private schools. These are the schools, which, according to Dhume, “educate poor students at affordable rates”. But the National Independent Schools Alliance, whose data he cited, has put out estimates on school closures that do not differentiate between ­schools that have closed and those that have received compliance notices.

Anurag Behar, the CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation, too has argued that the NISA numbers are at best, a wild exaggeration, and at worst, false. An Azim Premji Foundation study of 69 districts across the country put the number of school closures at five. The problem, said Behar, is that private schools balk at the monetary cost of RTE requirements for basic child safety standards and a child-friendly educational environment.

On Twitter, Irani responded to Dhume’s repetition of the school closure story to say that Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, who had made the same complaint to the HRD ministry, was asked for the names and addresses of the schools that had ostensibly been closed but had not been heard from since.

As for low-cost private schools actually “educating children”, there is enough evidence to show that this does not happen any more than it does in a standard government school. A voucher-based school choice study in Andhra Pradesh by Karthik Murlidharan-Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Azim Premji Foundation found that there was no significant difference in learning outcomes between children who won a voucher to a local private school and those who remained in government schools. Even the ASER reports, cited in Dhume’s article, which annually confirm that school-goers’ learning levels are abysmal, do not distinguish between government and private school children.

States must take the lead

Among solutions suggested by critics of the RTE is a “Right to Learning” law. New laws to fix chronic problems, is India’s old way of doing things. In the case of education, state governments, which have the major responsibility for school education, have considerable freedom to devise their own laws. Gujarat, as Dhume himself said in his article, showed the way by creating RTE rules that gave student-learning primacy over all other parameters. The disappointment that Modi has not embraced the “Gujarat model” at the Centre is the disappointment of those who forget that like the United States, India is a federal country and the Union government’s powers are limited. It is up to states to make similar rules.

“Few experts,” Dhume said, “who track this issue believe Modi will embrace the deep-rooted education reform India needs.” The education reform the experts he refers to want is the creation of an unregulated low-cost education bazaar for the poor, with high-fee private schools for the middle class off-limits to them. No wonder then that the disaffected middle class the article gives voice to are disappointed. The major impact of the RTE on them will be a 25% reduction in seats in private schools should the economically weaker students provision be properly implemented.

We can reasonably assume that even if Modi’s government successfully fixed all the existing infirmities in the RTE – for example fixing the balance between learning and infrastructure, and including minority-run schools in the economically weaker students rule – it will not fix the economically weaker students provision in a manner that would make high-cost private school owners or the entitled middle class happy.

Fixing the RTE will also not solve the problem of education and skills in India. For that a government needs deep pockets and a commitment to treat education for the children of the poor like they would for those of the well-to-do. To achieve this, at a minimum, they will have to: Turn teaching into a desirable profession, put enough skilled teacher educators into enough institutions that will produce teachers who teach children how to learn rather than to cram, and create a system of academic support for teachers not so very different from the one Gandhi Kingdon’s schools boast of.

What everyone concerned about the crisis of education in India agrees on is that this government does not appear to have the “intellectual infrastructure” to deliver a policy to make this happen.