By VIKAS BAJAJ and JIM YARDLEY
Published: December 30, 2011
Published: December 30, 2011
HYDERABAD, India — For more than two decades, M. A. Hakeem has arguably done the job of the Indian government. His private Holy Town High School has educated thousands of poor students, squeezing them into cramped classrooms where, when the electricity goes out, the children simply learn in the dark.
Parents in Holy Town’s low-income, predominantly Muslim neighborhood do not mind the bare-bones conditions. They like the modest tuition (as low as $2 per month), the English-language curriculum and the success rate on standardized tests. Indeed, low-cost schools like Holy Town are part of an ad hoc network that now dominates education in this south Indian city, where an estimated two-thirds of all students attend private institutions.
“The responsibility that the government should shoulder,” Mr. Hakeem said with both pride and contempt, “we are shouldering it.”
In India, the choice to live outside the faltering grid of government services is usually reserved for the rich or middle class, who can afford private housing compounds, private hospitals and private schools. But as India’s economy has expanded during the past two decades, an increasing number of India’s poor parents are now scraping together money to send their children to low-cost private schools in hopes of helping them escape poverty.
Nationally, a large majority of students still attend government schools, but the expansion of private institutions has created parallel educational systems — systems that are now colliding. Faced with sharp criticism of the woeful state of government schools, Indian policy makers have enacted a sweeping law intended to reverse their decline. But skeptics say the litany of new requirements could also wipe out many of the private schools now educating millions of students.
“It’s impossible to fulfill all these things,” said Mohammed Anwar, who runs a chain of private schools in Hyderabad and is trying to organize a nationwide lobbying campaign to alter the requirements. Referring to the law, he said, “If you follow the Right to Education, nobody can run a school.”
Education is one of India’s most pressing challenges. Half of India’s 1.2 billion people are 25 or younger, and literacy levels, while improving, could cripple the country’s long-term prospects. In many states, government education is in severe disarray, with teachers often failing to show up. Rote drilling still predominates. English, considered a prerequisite for most white-collar employment in India, is usually not the medium of instruction.
When it took effect in April 2010, the Right to Education Act enshrined, for the first time, a constitutional right to schooling, promising that every child from 6 to 14 would be provided with it. For a nation that had never properly financed education for the masses, the law was a major milestone.
“If we nurture our children and young people with the right education,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, commemorating the act with a televised address, “India’s future as a strong and prosperous country is secure.”
Few disagree with the law’s broad, egalitarian goals or that government schools need a fundamental overhaul. But the law also enacted new regulations on teacher-student ratios, classroom size and parental involvement in school administration that are being applied to government and private schools. The result is a clash between an ideal and the reality on the ground, with a deadline: Any school that fails to comply by 2013 could be closed.
Kapil Sibal, the government minister overseeing Indian education, has scoffed at claims that the law will cause mass closings of private schools. Yet in Hyderabad, education officials are preparing for exactly that outcome. They are constructing new buildings and expanding old ones, partly to comply with the new regulations, partly anticipating that students will be forced to return from closing private institutions.
“Fifty percent will be closed down as per the Right to Education Act,” predicted E. Bala Kasaiah, a top education official in Hyderabad.
As a boy, M. A. Hakeem listened as his father bemoaned the slow progress of his fellow Muslims in India. “Son,” he recalls his father’s saying, “when you grow up, you should provide education to our community.”
A few months after Mr. Hakeem completed the 10th grade, his father died. A year later, in 1986, Mr. Hakeem opened a small preparatory school with nursery classes. He was 15 years old.
Not yet old enough to vote, Mr. Hakeem held classes in his family’s home and enlisted his two sisters to handle administrative tasks. By the mid-1990s, Mr. Hakeem had opened Holy Town. The school has since produced students who have gone into engineering, commerce and other fields.
“I’m fulfilling my father’s dream,” Mr. Hakeem said.
When Holy Town opened, Mr. Hakeem’s neighborhood at the edge of the old quarter of Hyderabad had one private school, a Catholic one. Today, there are seven private schools within a half-mile of Holy Town, each charging a few dollars a month and catering to Muslim students with a largely secular education in English.
Their emergence roughly coincided with the economic liberalization that began in 1991. For decades, government officials had blamed rural apathy for India’s high illiteracy rates, saying that families preferred sending their children into the fields, not the classroom. But as the economy started taking off, public aspirations changed, especially among low-income families.
“In India today, demand is not really a constraint for education — it’s the supply,” said Karthik Muralidharan, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied Indian education. “Parents are seeing education as the passport out of poverty.”
The rising demand created a new market for private schools, and entrepreneurs big and small have jumped at the chance to profit from it. Corporate educational chains opened schools tailored to higher-income families, especially in the expanding cities. Low-cost schools like Holy Town proliferated in poorer neighborhoods, a trend evident in most major cities and spreading into rural India.
Estimating the precise enrollment of private schools is tricky. Government officials say more than 90 percent of all primary schools are run by or financed by the government. Yet one government survey found that 30 percent of the 187 million students in grades 1 through 8 now attend private schools. Some academic studies have suggested that more than half of all urban students now attend private academies.
In Mumbai, so many parents have pulled their children out of government schools that officials have started renting empty classrooms to charities and labor unions — and even to private schools. In recent years, Indian officials have increased spending on government education, dedicating far more money for new schools, hiring teachers and providing free lunches to students. Still, more and more parents are choosing to go private.
“What does it say about the quality of your product that you can’t even give it away for free?” Mr. Muralidharan said.
Most low-cost private schools also follow rote-teaching methods because their students have to take standardized tests approved by the government. But some studies suggest that teachers in government schools are absent up to 25 percent of the time. Poor children who attended private schools scored higher on reading and math tests, according to a study by Sonalde Desai, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and other scholars.
“There is not much teaching that happens in the government schools,” said Raju Bhosla, 32, whose children attend one of Hyderabad’s low-cost private schools. “I never even thought about putting my kids in government schools.”
Across Hyderabad, work crews in 58 locations are expanding government schools or constructing new ones. To education officials, the building spree signals a rebirth of the government system, part of an $800 million statewide program to bring government schools into compliance with the new law.
For Mr. Sibal, the national education minister, government schools had atrophied because of a lack of money. Under Right to Education, states can qualify for more than $2 billion to improve facilities, hire new teachers and improve curriculums, he said.
“All these changes are going to transform the schools system in the next five years,” Mr. Sibal predicted. As for the tens of thousands of private schools opened during the past 15 years to satisfy the public’s growing hunger for education, Mr. Sibal said, “We’ve given them three years time,” referring to the 2013 compliance deadline. “We hope that is enough.”
Skepticism abounds. Elite private schools, already struggling with requirements that they reserve slots for poor and minority students, have filed lawsuits. But the bigger question is what will happen to the tens of thousands of low-cost private schools already serving the poor.
James Tooley, a British scholar who has studied private education in India, said government statistics grossly underestimate private schooling — partly because so many private institutions are not formally registered. In a recent survey of the eastern city of Patna, Mr. Tooley found 1,224 private schools, even though government records listed only about 40.
In Hyderabad, principals at several private schools said inspectors regularly threatened them with closings unless they paid bribes. Now, the principals say, the inspectors are wielding the threat of the Right to Education requirements and seeking even bigger bribes.
Mr. Anwar, the private school entrepreneur trying to organize a lobbying campaign, estimated that roughly 5,000 private schools operated in Hyderabad.
“Can the government close 5,000 schools?” he asked. “If they close, how can the government accommodate all these students?”