What Does the Right to Education Need to Achieve?

In the context of the Right to Education, it is essential that the government (i) lays down a clear financial road map based on a normative framework with clearly stated and transparent norms that apply equitably; (ii) recognises the unequal financial position of the states and the crucial role of the centre in forging long-run development goals; and (iii) approaches finance in relation to social policy.  

Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 is an ambitious and forward–looking move that guarantees every child the right to a worthy education and not access to a dysfunctional system. To what extent and how adequately a system responds to the RTE Act, however, depends on the usage of financial resources—the public expenditure on elementary education. 

Understanding the Need for a Financial Road Map 

A financial road map is essential to take the RTE forward in a meaningful way. The last estimate of financial requirements to universalise education[1] goes back to 2009–10, around the time when the act came into being. Despite a clear direction[2] in the RTE Act on the central government’s responsibility to prepare financial estimates for the act’s  implementation of the act, no estimates are available. Currently, the practice of incremental budgeting, where the current budget is prepared with a small markup from the previous year’s budget, decides the course of fund allocation. 

For elementary schooling, the social vision for a normative estimate is articulated in the RTE Act: it has to conform with constitutional values and aim for the all-round development of the child, including mental and physical abilities. The act mandates the minimum pupil to teacher ratio, the number of working days and working hours to ensure that every child gets the required attention they deserve.  Each school has to be endowed with teaching–learning equipment, library facility, play material, games and sports equipment. This social vision must find resonance in the provisions of a normative road map. As for financial norms, these should cover actual costs rather than be determined by existing levels of expenditure. A granular approach, with relevant details, is necessary  for greater transparency and accountability. A defining feature of the normative is equity in provisions and therefore spending.

What Does Unit-level Data Reveal?

 A normative financial roadmap presents a useful benchmark to evaluate the adequacy of current budgetary allocations against desired norms and therefore lead the system towards course correction. In a recent study, we estimated the normative resource requirements for the implementation of RTE (Bose et al 2019). Using school-level data—since RTE norms must apply to every school—the resource requirement for RTE compliance is worked out. Estimates include the components of costs for running schools (school-level) and the support system required to ensure that schools function well (system-level).  It includes children who are in public schools (including aided schools) and children who are out of school. Here are a few important dimensions of the elementary education landscape that emerge:  At the all-India level, about 15 million children in the relevant age group are out of school.  Both social composition and regional concentration of out-of-school (OSC) children bring home the challenge of their inclusion. The highest percentage of OSC among the child population in the 6-13+ age group, as per the National Sample Survey Office (2014–15) estimates is recorded in Uttar Pradesh (13%), followed by Bihar and Rajasthan (around 10%), then Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (8%), and Jharkhand (7%). Further, a disproportionate share of OSC (40%) belong to marginalised communities.

Unit-level data on school infrastructure (UDISE 2015–16) reveals substantial gaps between the normative requirement and the actual situation on infrastructure. Since classrooms are a fixed asset, there is a need to create infrastructure to meet the deficits even if there are surpluses in another school/area. The infrastructure deficit is particularly acute in Bihar, demanding special attention.  In addition, there is a fairly widespread need for infrastructure repairs (both major and minor) across states.  

The situation on teacher recruitments and their postings is more vexing than the progress on meeting infrastructure requirements. A large percentage of schools violate RTE norms on teacher requirements.[3] State-wise figures show massive teacher deficits as a proportion of required teachers. Bihar (53%) and Jharkhand (44%)  (UDISE 2015–16). At the all-India level, the total teacher requirement is estimated at 6.19 million. This includes teachers needed for mainstreaming OSC and part-time instructors for upper primary schools . The estimated all-India teacher deficit is 31%. Further, a significant 16% of teachers at the elementary level are untrained. A lack of teachers’ professional qualifications is in turn closely related to the deficits in institutional capacity for teacher education and training.

The Unequal Fiscal Position of the States

Applying a set of reasonable unit costs, the financial estimates of resource requirements are first obtained for each state (including union territories) and then aggregated to obtain the all-India estimate. Three results are particularly noteworthy. First, for the year 2015-16, the normative per student recurrent cost (PSRC) is estimated at Rs 23,200 for general category states.  When compared to Kendriya Vidyalaya’s per student recurring expenditure of Rs 32,700, this estimate falls in a very reasonable range. Due to underlying differences in the size of the schools and the mix of new and existing teachers, among other things, there is some variability in normative PSRC across states. 

Second, the comparison of actual expenditure with the normative presents a startling picture. Actual expenditure is alarmingly low in many states compared to normative requirement.  The ratio of actual expenditure to total requirement for Bihar is only about 25%. In Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, the ratio lies between 38–46%. The deficit only slightly reduces for Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. This establishes the widespread phenomenon of under-spending though the per student financial requirement estimated are in a reasonable range.  At the upper end, more adequate spending is observed for Kerala, Tamil Nadu, the ratio is 101% and 90%  respectively.  Under-spending can be attributed not only to physical or human resource gaps, but also to the gaps in unit costs, including salaries of teachers.  A financial road map aimed at universalisation of equitable quality should be able to address the existing gaps, as well as deficiencies and distortions in the system.

Third, the revenue base is disproportionately small relative to the resource requirement in a number of states, particularly  Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Additional requirement here is defined as total requirement minus actual expenditure, which provides a measure of the financial gap. Additional requirement when normalised by states’ overall  income gross state domestic product (GSDP) indicates the feasibility of public funding for more adequate spending on universalisation of elementary education.  A total of 16 states—eight of the above mentioned general category states and eight special category states—have additional requirement to GSDP higher than 1% of GSDP (Figure 1).  Public policy needs to  take cognisance of the unequal positions of these states. 

BIH: Bihar, UP: Uttar Pradesh, WB: West Bengal, MP: Madhya Pradrsh, RAJ: Rajasthan, ODIS: Odisha, JHAR: Jharakhand, CG: Chhattisgarh
ASS: Assam, J&K: Jammu & Kashmir, MEG: Meghalaya, TRI: Tripura, MAN: Manipur, NAG: Nagaland, ARP: Arunachal Pradesh, MIZ: Mizoram
Source: Authors' calculation 

A Central Push Is Imperative

For these 16 states, elementary education today requires a special thrust. The sum of additional resource requirements for the 16 states amounts to Rs 1,38,727 crore, or 1.01% of gross domestic product (GDP) for 2015–16, the reference year. This is the imperative objective of universalisation of elementary education (UEE)EE is to be fulfilled, as per the RTE mandate. For this universalisation to be feasible, the centre has to ensure that funds are available for plans drawn up by states. The quantum of the fiscal transfer to the 16 focus states would need to be substantial (Figure 2).

Estimates include anticipated wage hike due to 7th Pay Commission in 2017–18; GDP is assumed to grow at 7.32% annually in 2018–19 and 2019–20.
Source: Authors' Calculation

For the remaining states, a plan is required to nudge states to maintain education as a national priority with a long-term plan to solve the problem. To borrow from V K R V Rao (1972), the centre should play a stimulating, innovative, consultative and promotional role in educational development. Moreover, the cynicism cycle needs to be broken: school teams and school administration are demotivated, and public schools have fallen into neglect, many of which are clearly dysfunctional.  Students are thus dropping out from public schools, and there is barely any effort to address this issue at the systemic level.  States require help to draw up plans that can turn government schools around, build up school teams, and create a system of trust and accountability by better spending on management.

The additional requirement—we have argued that most of it needs to be met by the centre—can be raised in a number of ways. India's tax ratios are the lowest among economies with comparable purchasing power parity adjusted GDP per capita.  This accounts for the low spending on health and education, a mere 5.1% of GDP compared to emerging market economies average of 7.5% and OECD average of 11.6% (GoI 2016). Raising tax revenue is essential for sustained investments in social sectors.

Besides revenue from gross budgetary support, it may be pointed out that whenever the political will exists, new avenues of financing have emerged, especially at the central level. In the 1980s and 1990s, funding from multilateral institutions at a concessional rate was tapped in a big way through large-scale programmes such as District Primary Education Programme, Operation Black Board and Mahila Samakhya. After the turn of the century, primary education cess, essentially a tax on tax, has provided ring-fenced revenue for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the mid-day-meal (MDM) programme. Its success prompted the central government to extend it to other sectors within education, and more recently to the health sector. These opportunities of securing additional support lie with the centre rather than with the states. Funds can be raised, if the government so desires.

Prioritising Social Policy

While the provisioning of resources is necessary, it is insufficient to ensure the desired reform of the public education system. There needs to be a special effort to make the public school system functional to win back the trust of people. Finance is only an instrument in this. Social policy must be made a priority and finance seen in relation to social policy.

As Chakravarty (1987) explains, it is important to factor in the impediments for reforming the public system if we are to seek behavioural changes that could lead to the desired goals. One factor that affects functionality is the nexus of teachers and school administration with local political leadership. Senior functionaries cite these political ties to explain their inability to initiate disciplinary action for dereliction of duty.[4]

Another related issue that affects functionality is the amount of non-teaching duties expected from teachers. It is common to observe  that out of three teachers posted to a school, one is present, the other is called to the block office while the third teacher hardly ever attends. At present, teachers self-identify more as public servants rather than as professionals. Teachers are quick on the roles expected of them as public servants, be it school paperwork or the block-level officer’s work for the Election Commission. These jobs are informally looked upon with pride and teachers receive positive feedback for the work accomplished—all the while, the signals that could create an identity of a professional teacher are largely missing.

All of these factors work together to create demotivated school teams and greatly undermine the school leadership roles of the head teacher or other senior teachers. The complementarity of various roles is important if we are to avoid the scenario of cynical “teacher-bashing” and focus on improving delivery systems. This is where a social policy perspective is required and can evolve in a finance-enabled atmosphere.  

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