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The Supreme Court has upheld the Right to Education Act and its 25 per cent quota for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in all schools — public, private and in-between (except minority unaided institutions). It dismissed the petition of certain private schools, which argued that the directive to admit these children was unconstitutional, cut into their autonomy, and interfered with their capacity to be "centres of excellence". The real constitutional concern, as the court has said, is providing quality education to all children between 6 and 14, as promised by the RTE — an obligation that all educational institutions must pitch in to fulfil. This does not mean shifting responsibility from the government — private schools will be compensated by the state to the extent that it spends per child in the public system (and how this will be managed is crucial).
Private initiative has contributed to the schooling boom across the country in the last two decades — these schools have tended to be demonstrably more efficient, flexible and accountable than government schools. Parents must be given the choice to send their children to private or public schools, depending on what they judge superior. Consigning poorer children to a less driven system is unfair, given that educational inequality leads to income inequality later. Apart from justice and greater inclusivity, there are clear pedagogical benefits to this RTE decision: a classroom where children from diverse backgrounds learn together is likely to produce a clearer idea of the world than one where the narrow assumptions of home and school reinforce each other.
This judgment is a strong statement for equity, but it affects only a section of elite schools — for the most part, RTE goals remain to be addressed by the state system, and by purposeful public-private partnerships. Just as private schools are brought in to share a larger common commitment, government schools should also invite ideas and operational help from the private sector and NGOs. They should ask why, despite better infrastructure and teacher salaries in most cases, they are outpaced in terms of performance by private schools — and be open to learning from their experience.
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