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In September 2018, the Indian government unveiled a massive three-billion-dollar project—Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States, or STARS— designed in collaboration with the World Bank to improve the country’s education system. While 85 percent of the project’s cost would be borne by the Indian government, the rest would be financed through a World Bank loan. The loan is still being negotiated, even as the Indian government prepares for the project’s implementation. But, unfortunately, the project has not seen much public discussion or scrutiny.

On paper, the programme seems promising. Besides taking on some national-level initiatives, the project seeks to reform the education system in six states: Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha. It promises improvement in early-childhood education, teacher and school-leadership development, and building infrastructure, among other noble objectives. But a closer look at the project document reveals a flawed understanding of the kind of intervention the country might need. The project ignores what many experts consider the most immediate problem—an underfunded public-education system. Instead, it focusses on simply improving education delivery, through a greater inclusion of private-education providers in the sector, despite the well-known shortcomings of similar projects in places such as Liberia and Pakistan. The project ignores not only the countless failures of public-private partnerships in education, but also the abysmal track record of India’s private schools.

According to the government’s own data, less than thirteen percent of India’s schools adhere to the minimum norms laid down by law. These are rock-bottom basics: a roof over children’s heads, a teacher in every classroom, availability of basic teaching and learning material, and basic sanitation facilities in every school. In northeastern India, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, this number is lower than five percent.

And yet, the political will to improve this state of affairs is virtually non-existent. According to a report put out by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in late 2017, Bihar spends only a quarter of what it needs to spend to meet these minimum norms. Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh spend less than half of what is needed. Without ensuring these basics, there is little chance of improving learning.

Instead of taking care of these problems, governments often look for quick fixes. Turning to the private sector has remained a go-to method, despite its proven failure. The STARS project is also plagued by similar issues. It places its faith in information and technology solutions provided by the private sector. It also wants to introduce standardised international tests to evaluate students. Meanwhile, the document does not deal with the existing successes, challenges and learnings in the Indian context. No concrete steps have been suggested to address social exclusion and marginalisation faced by India’s Adivasi, Dalit, disabled and other oppressed communities—whose children are most at risk. Tried and tested solutions such as teacher circles working groups of teachers where colleagues share ideas and advise one another—have not been mentioned.

What might be most damaging about the project is its approach to partnerships with the private sector—which it sees as a tool of system reform. As much as twenty percent of the funds is expected to be spent through partnerships with a variety of non-state actors. This is a highly unusual clause. STARS proposes the creation of a new national PPP framework for education. It does not specify how school education would remain a not-for-profit area in line with existing human- rights laws.

Much is at stake here both in terms of the work being proposed and the funds that are on the line. The project’s total worth is $3.35 billion. Accordingly, more than six hundred million dollars are expected to go to owners of private schools, private service providers, NGOs and management firms. This appears to be one of the largest instances of the transfer of public funds to the private sector in India’s education sector.

The World Bank loan’s project-implementation document states that the private sector has lessons to offer the public sector in terms of management. The document lists a number of international and national experiments with PPPs which the World Bank appears to consider worthy of emulation. But looking at the track record of some of these endeavours tells a different story.

For instance, the document cites the Liberian Education Advancement Partnership as a success. However, a recent evaluation of the PPP initiative by the Center for Global Development, a US-based think tank, has highlighted that while the project resulted in a slight improvement in learning outcomes, it also contributed to an increased dropout rate and failed to reduce instances of sexual abuse. In October 2018, a ProPublica investigation revealed that in a school run by the American charity More Than Me in partnership with the Liberian government, a senior staffer raped at least ten girls. Among the providers in Liberia was the for- profit multinational school chain Bridge International Academies. The World Bank’s own accountability body is investigating investments made by one of its affiliates, the International Finance Corporation, in the school chain. Allegations against Bridge schools in various countries include that they violate laws and do not meet guidelines for low-cost private schools. Complaints have been raised regarding working conditions for teachers, including hours of work, pay deductions and teachers being forced to market the schools. It would be dangerous to propose that India’s private-education providers should replicate the Bridge model.

The document also cites Pakistan’s Punjab Education Foundation, also a World Bank-supported programme that aimed to enhance access to education in the country. Recent research on the project, supported by the non-profit Oxfam, found that most of the enrolled students had been pulled from existing schools. Only 1.3 percent of enrolled students had actually been out of school prior to the programme’s commencement. This was unsurprising, given that the cost for a child to attend affiliated schools was more than half of the income of a parent living at the poverty line. Students with disabilities, among the most under- represented groups in education, constituted less than 0.001 percent of the enrolment in the sample. Many schools of the programme actively screen and select children based on their academic ability through tests, leading to exclusion of those with disabilities or those lacking previous schooling. The schools have also failed to achieve gender parity, as three-quarters of the schools have more boys than girls.

Closer to home, the report mentions PPPs in Mumbai and Rajasthan. A review of the Rajasthan Education Initiative by the international non-profit Global e- Schools and Communities Initiative said that the project failed against many of its stated objectives. It noted that the project was “not able to address the implementation issues of co-partners, who have found it difficult to carry out their projects effectively.” Similarly, the School Excellence Programme implemented by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation was shut down as learning outcomes failed to improve. PPPs in education remain volatile, and the government needs to be careful before proceeding with them, as they often involve private players amassing wealth through public money.

The faith in the private sector as a tool for reforming India’s education system is also baffiing because of the exclusionary record of India’s private schools. In fact, a recent study by the World Bank itself of living standards in Uttar Pradesh showed that the gender gap in private-school enrolment is increasing, even when it is closing up in government schools. In 2014, a group of United Kingdom-based organisations released a comprehensive review of literature on the impact of privatisation on education in developing countries. The study found that “girls are less likely than boys to be enrolled in private schools.”

Private schools enroll children from families that can afford to pay. Sending a child to a private school in India is approximately nine times as costly as sending a child to a government school, including all indirect costs associated with schooling, such as buying books, and transport. Reliance on the private sector for delivering education fundamentally alters the character of an education system—what should be a universal right of every child becomes a commodity that parents have to buy. In such a system parents from poorer backgrounds are pushed to make a difficult, but seemingly rational, decision not to buy that service for those children—girls, children with disabilities—whom labour markets are less likely to reward for their education.

A private-led system of education delivery is antithetical to the goal of a universal system of education with somewhat equal quality. India has vast populations of poor and marginalised people, and they start with unequal human capital from early childhood. This gap only increases as children grow into adults. India’s richest 1 percent now hold more than four times the wealth held by the 953 million people who make up for the bottom 70 percent of the country’s population. The wealth of all Indian billionaires is more than the annual budgetary outlay. This gap would never be closed with an educational system that is segregated by parents’ income.

Thus, an alternative to squandering money on STARS would be to plug the spending gap on government schools in India’s most educationally lagging states and lifting the floor of quality among the lowest performers.

The article originally published in The Caravan can be accessed here.

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