Saturday, February 19, 2011

Regulating private schools is policy gone wild

Thousands of Nepali students come to the US every year. Many of them work 40 hours a week, yet manage to graduate in the top 10 percentile of their university. There is little doubt that private schools in Nepal do a better job preparing students for college than what many government schools of the US do.

More than ever before, such quality private education has become accessible to the masses. What was confined to Kathmandu Valley has now trickled down to Hetauda, Chitwan, Janakpur and Surkhet. Increasingly more, students from outside Kathmandu are attending colleges around the world that were accessible only to the elite of Nepal until a decade ago. Thousands of parents, who would have had to send their kids to Kathmandu or Darjeeling at a higher cost, now have access to such education at half the cost within the reach of their homes. All of this would not have been possible without private schools.

Private schools have also made inroads into very remote places, where basic necessities like clean drinking water and proper roads have not reached. Expectedly these private schools have smaller buildings, fewer teachers and little resources. But they still offer higher quality education compared to government schools. These schools cost about Rs 500 to Rs1000 per month and are attended by children whose fathers pull rickshaws and mothers labor in the farms, or whose parents have a small teashop.

In these schools, just like in any other private school, education is business; the owner makes sure that the students get what they pay for and teachers need to come on time and deliver. If there are complaints from the students or parents, these teachers are replaced. The cost is kept down, because competition is stiff. If parents feel the school isn’t providing education worth their money, they switch. In other words, the market makes sure that these schools offer education that is worth their price.

These tiny private schools in small towns will not remain like this forever. As the economy of the towns grow, they will become better. Schools like GEMS and Little Angeles used to be housed in cramped places with classrooms without proper windows. Now they have beautiful sprawling campuses that would be an envy of any private school in the world. Their teachers and students have better facilities than they used to. They have collaborated with international institutions, and provide better opportunities to the students than ever before. It is realistic to hope that the same story is going to happen for schools in Janakpur and Hetauda, and later in much remote villages and towns.

But all of this will only happen if our government keeps its hands out of private education. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. Private schools currently pay 25 percent tax on their net income, just like corporation that produce alcohol, perfumes and cigarettes. On top of that, they are now required to pay an extra percent as education service tax. As if that was enough, there is now a new provision that requires every student attending private school to contribute Rs 1 per month towards a Rural Education Development Fund (REDF). The plan is to channel these funds to improve government schools in remote areas.

These taxations will make private education more expensive. Eventually the burden of these taxations is going to be passed down to the parents. This is because owners of private schools are fully aware that even if they raise the fee, the students will not switch to a government school. The worst hit by this law is going to be the poor parents who are struggling to send their kids to private schools. For them, the extra fees are a bigger burden than for those who are better off.

Advocates of higher tax for private school seem to be aware of that. But they don’t care. They are convinced that private school has done more harm than good to our nation. Dr Baburam Bhattarai, the ideologue of the Maoist party has publicly advocated for shut down of private schools. He believes that private schools are adding fuel to the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. But he has never explained the basis on which he reached such a conclusion.

Actually, private schools may be decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor. Think about case where there are no private schools in Nepal. The doctor’s children will then go to a boarding school in Darjeeling, while those of auto-rickshaw will puller go to a government school in Janakpur. Contrast this with having plenty of private schools. Under this circumstance, doctor’s children will go to a private school, and the children of rickshaw pullers will go to a not-so-good private school. In this case, will the future economic gap between the child of auto-rickshaw puller and doctor be narrower?

The other motivation of taxing private school is to transfer money from private school to government schools. The idea is that with better resources these government schools will perform better. This is unlikely to happen. What is ailing in government schools is not lack resource but its poor management. They have highly paid teachers, better infrastructure than many private schools but the students perform poorly. What we need is better rules in these schools: rules that make teachers come on time, rules that compel headmasters to spend more time managing his school than politicking, rules that give headmaster more power to fire bad teachers, rules that make teachers more answerable to parents.
In meantime, we should leave private schools alone. They are doing just fine.
DR ANAND JHA:Republica,20 feb 2011