Mumbai: It was Sharadchandra Kale’s dream to get his six-year-old daughter into grade I at a neighbourhood private school this year. The 33-year-old scheduled caste labourer from west Mumbai suburb Andheri had applied under Right To Education (RTE) Section 12(1)(c) that guarantees 25% reservation in non-minority private unaided schools to children from poor and socially disadvantaged homes.

Kale’s daughter did get a seat in the Andheri school but the experience has left him bitter. “I felt like I was being treated like a second-class citizen. They spoke in English which I don’t understand so I had to repeatedly ask for an explanation,” said Kale. “I was not allowed to collect my child’s books for which the school is demanding Rs 1,200. And they haven’t said anything yet about online classes.”

The barriers Kale faced are among the critical reasons why the RTE reservation system in Maharashtra is struggling to reach its objective--to provide free, inclusive education while incentivising private schools by reimbursing their costs for educating poor, disadvantaged children, we found. If the Andheri school had followed RTE rules, Kale would not be forced to pay for his daughter’s books nor would he be made to feel humiliated and unwelcome.

The RTE Act came into effect in 2009 to provide free and compulsory elementary education in a neighbourhood school to all children between the ages of six and 14 years. While the criterion for economically weaker sections differs for every state, in Maharashtra, children from families with annual income under Rs 1 lakh are eligible for RTE admission.

The state government is expected to reimburse schools for books, fees and uniforms. But every year, the issue of non-reimbursement of RTE funds to private schools--assured under the RTE Act--resurfaces during admissions. Private schools have been demanding the pending RTE reimbursement from the state government and have been denying RTE admissions claiming lack of funds.

As a result, less than half--9,331 (41%) of 22,840--private unaided schools in Maharashtra have registered for RTE admissions this year. Even in these schools, 31.3% of reserved seats remain vacant.

Proportionally, more children from disadvantaged communities are enrolled in government schools than in private schools. The proportion of enrolment for children from scheduled castes (SC) families for elementary education was greater in government schools (23.5%) than in private unaided schools (13.6%) for the year 2017-18, data from U-DISE, a database of school education in India maintained by the National Informatics Centre and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, show. For the same year, the proportion of enrolment of children from scheduled tribes (ST) families was 14.2% for the government schools and 4.7% for the private unaided schools. For children with special needs (CwSN) (a child suffering from any kind of disability), the enrolment in government schools was 1.2% and 0.3% for private unaided schools.

Social discrimination, illegal demands for tuition, books and activity fees, and a chronic problem of non-reimbursement of the expenditure incurred by the private schools that join the programme are the factors that hobble the state’s RTE system. Government schools do a better job of complying with RTE parameters than private, unaided and government-aided schools, as per U-DISE. One of the reasons for it is, they are directly funded, managed and inspected by the government, as stated by Hemangi Joshi, convener, RTE Forum, Maharashtra and Smitin Brid, programme director for early childhood education at Pratham Education Foundation.

In Maharashtra, the number of private schools rose 45%, from 15,718 in 2016-17 to 22,840 in 2018-19. During the same period, RTE admission rose 78%--from 41,565 in 2016-17 to 73,973 in 2018-19, as per an analysis of the data on the state’s RTE portal. Last year, admissions rose a further 6%.

For the academic year 2020-21, by October 29, admissions rose by 1% as compared to last year. Of the 115,477 seats available, 36,251 (31.3%) are still vacant. Till September last year, 47,621 (40%) of the 116,809 seats were vacant.

The vacant seats are mostly in schools that did not receive the required number of applications from their families in their area, as choosing schools is up to applicants’ parents, said Tapas Sutradhar, CEO of the NGO Tapasya Pratishthan.

Due to lockdown-related delays this year, the deadline has been extended to October 29. In previous years, technical issues and reimbursement demands have also delayed admissions, often causing applicants to lose, or fear losing, the initial months of the academic year—2020, 2019, 2018, 2017.

Of the over 22,800 private unaided schools across the state, only 9,331 (41%) have registered for RTE admissions this year. The reason for this, primarily, is the government’s poor record of reimbursements to private schools, experts told IndiaSpend.

More private schools

The number of private unaided schools in Maharashtra more than doubled--from 11,348 to 22,840--in seven years to 2018-19. In comparison, the number of government-aided schools rose 21% and the number of government schools fell 5% in six years to 2017-18, an analysis of U-DISE data showed.

Admissions under RTE in Maharashtra have increased between 2016-17 and 2018-19, and a bulk of this increase was in the first year: Admissions rose 53%, 7% and 6% in the three intervening years.

Additionally, a comparison of U-DISE data from 2013-14 to 2017-18 showed that the proportion of SC children enrolled in private, unaided schools has stayed at 8.6%-8.7%; for ST children, it is less than 4%. For children with special needs, the proportion has dropped from 1% to 0.8%. The proportion of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and disabled persons to the total population in Maharashtra is 11.8%, 9.3% and 2.64%, as per the state’s Economic Survey 2019-20. The proportion of children from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and children with special needs in government schools for elementary education is 15%, 19.3% and 2%, for the year 2017-18.

‘40,000 schools yet to be reimbursed’

Under RTE Section 12(2), non-minority private unaided schools are entitled to reimbursement from the state government for the per-child expenditure incurred, as we said.

This year, almost 50% private schools in Maharashtra have boycotted admissions under RTE, said Sanjayrao Tayade Patil, president of Maharashtra English School Trustees Association, a non-profit coalition of around 18,000 private schools in the state agitating to be paid pending reimbursement claims. Private schools’ organisations across Maharashtra had protested against admissions under RTE due to pending dues in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Under the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the government mission that oversees RTE, the existing fund sharing between the Centre and the state is 60:40. States have to notify their per-child cost to receive the central share. The per-child cost notified by Maharashtra government is Rs 17,670, as of 2019.

Maharashtra RTE Rules 2011 require private unaided schools registered for RTE admissions to maintain a separate bank account for the reimbursement that equals actual expenditure per-child or the per-child cost notified by the state, whichever is less. The reimbursement process begins with the schools submitting the reimbursement claims to the district officials who then submit it to the state after verifying them against admissions. The state then releases the amount to the schools and raises a claim for the release of funds with the Centre. The central Project Approval Board (PAB) then releases funds to the state based on actual expenditure.

For the academic years 2018-19 and 2019-20, the PAB had approved about a third of the proposed amounts for reimbursements, minutes from the PAB meetings show. Prior to that, in 2017-18, only 3% of the proposed amount was approved. (see graph below)

While 96% of the amount proposed for reimbursement was approved for the current year, this corresponds to funds disbursed by states in the year 2018-19, Dinkar Temkar, deputy director of primary education for Maharashtra, told us. When asked about the pending dues and why the PAB for this year corresponds to 2018-19 and not to 2019-20, Temkar did not give a clear answer and disconnected the call.

“With more admissions under RTE, the outstanding reimbursement amount is increasing every year for around 40,000 private schools and the government still does not have updated data for it. The fund mentioned under PAB minutes is still not sufficient and RTE 25% admissions has never been the state’s priority,” said Patil.

Maharashtra has a comprehensive RTE Management Information System (MIS) that tracks RTE admissions, district and block-wise. However, data regarding reimbursement for each school based on the number of RTE students are not yet available in the public domain.

The online reimbursement option is not being used as the state government prefers manual payment, Sutradhar of Tapasya Pratishthan said, adding that this creates lack of transparency and fair practice.

One reason why reimbursements may not match actual expenses claimed could be incomplete documentation and to resolve this problem schools need to petition the Centre, said Smitin Brid, programme director for early childhood education at Pratham Education Foundation.

Social discrimination and fee demands

RTE students are often subjected to discriminatory practices and one of these is being seated in different classrooms, said Sushant Sonone, the Pune coordinator for Action for the Rights of the Child (ARC), a child-rights based training and capacity-building initiative by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Schools often have to fight demands from parents [of students not under RTE] to segregate RTE students, said Brid. “However, some schools engage in discriminatory practices and RTE cannot change mindsets,” he added.

Apart from the discriminatory practices, some private schools from Maharashtra have reportedly demanded fees for tuition, extra-curricular activities, not allowed RTE students to join online classes and opposed the government order against fee collection during the lockdown.

An RTE activist from Mumbai, who wanted to stay anonymous, claimed that his network operating in central Mumbai has had to intervene in around 30-40 cases every year wherein private schools demanded fees for books and uniforms. There have also been cases where children are not allowed to participate in class activities if they failed to pay. This is in violation of the Maharashtra RTE rules 2011.

Volunteers of Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP)--one of the organisations under ARC, Pune--look into cases of RTE admissions of and tuition fee demands from children of waste-pickers every year. They told IndiaSpend that they have come across around eight such cases so far this year.

“Our major issue is that there is no data maintained because despite our intervention under KKPKP, parents do not speak up because they fear the cancellation of their child’s admission and end up paying fees demanded by schools for various purposes. This year we reached out to the education officer regarding the issues, but parents refused to speak up,” said Sonone.

No data on retention

A study of the retention rate among RTE students in private schools from grades I to VIII is important to gauge the effectiveness of the campaign. But there is insufficient data to facilitate this, said Hemangi Joshi, convener of the RTE Forum, Maharashtra. The focus, she added, must shift from ensuring admissions to studying drop-out rates.

No such categorised data are maintained by the U-DISE. While the general retention rate at elementary level has increased from 85.3% in 2013-14 to 94% in 2017-18, there is no data available for the retention rate among the SC, ST, Other Backward Classes (OBC), children with special needs and Muslims.

The annual average drop-out rate for STs, OBCs and Muslims at primary level is greater than the general annual average drop-out rate of 0.5%. Mumbai-suburban has the highest drop-out rates from these communities in the state. Information related to drop-outs among children from disadvantaged and economically weaker communities admitted under section 12(1)(c) is not maintained with the Centre, the government told the Rajya Sabha in July 2019.

Way forward

  1. To avoid procedural delays in processing reimbursements in a transparent manner, the documentation process should be linked to the Public Finance Management System (PFMS), said Tapas Sutradhar, CEO, Tapasya Pratishthan. PFMS allows for real-time information on resource availability and utilisation without manual updation of data. “We had approached the government with a proposal and initiated the process in 2019, but there was no follow-up by the state on it,” he said.
  2. Private schools have mushroomed across the state but most of these are low-fee, low-budget schools that compromise on teachers’ salary, training and infrastructure expenditure, said Hemangi Joshi, convener, RTE Forum, Maharashtra. Despite the poor quality of education, they benefit from the RTE reimbursement which tends to be higher than their school fee, she added. “Regular inspections of private schools to ensure compliance with
    RTE norms
    for quality education is the need of the hour,” said Joshi. The exclusion of minority private schools from the provision further narrows the number of beneficiaries, she added.
  3. Private schools must receive the reimbursements they are entitled to because without this, the poor will end up losing the only quarter of reserved seats available to them in private schools and the rich lose the opportunity to learn from the experiences of the majority of the country, said Anjela Taneja, campaign lead,
    Oxfam India
    . “However, to ensure quality education to all, the state must focus on strengthening the system where the majority of the children from the marginalised communities study and as data shows, that’s definitely not the private sector,” Taneja told IndiaSpend.

(Sarasvati is an early-career journalist and an alumna of Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)

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