The Maharashtra government has decided to reduce per-child RTE reimbursement to non-minority private schools from over Rs 17,000 to Rs 8,000 per year.
Already battered by Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of schools now threaten agitation as they believe the move will cripple their finances and make them unviable.
Last week, the Maharashtra government headed by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray decided to cut per child reimbursement under the Right to Education (RTE) act by more than half. The move delivers a big blow to non-minority schools which have already been reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic for the past one year.
As per Section 12 of the RTE act, non-minority unaided private schools are required to reserve 25 per cent of the seats in entry-level grades (either primary level or Class 1) for students belonging to disadvantaged groups (DGs) [Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), etc] and economically weaker sections (EWS) [income less than a certain amount].
In return, the state governments are supposed to pay these schools, for every child admitted in 25 per cent quota, the amount equal to what it spends on every child in its government schools. However, almost all state governments have fixed a much lower amount for RTE students. The reason is obvious: per-student expenditure on students enrolled in government schools is very high. And if governments started paying similar amount for RTE students, then the budget will run into thousand of crores.
In Maharashtra, the RTE compensation per child was fixed at Rs 17,600 per year even though per-child expenditure in Maharashtra’s government schools has been estimated to be Rs 28,630 (according to a study by Child Rights and You and the Centre for Budgets, Governance and Accountability)
Uddhav Thackeray’s government has now slashed the compensation by half announcing that it will only pay Rs 8,000 per year per RTE admission. Non-minority unaided private schools (minority schools are exempt from following the RTE act) are up in arms against this decision.
”Every year at the time of RTE admissions, to avoid paying the reimbursement, the government indulges in misdirection and gives such orders. Last year, during the lockdown, they asked schools to furnish the Aadhar Card details of non-RTE students. The year before that, they asked schools to show property papers. Before that, there was mismatch of several hundred crores in reimbursement estimates of the government and the schools. Just like a new iPhone every year is a certainty, so is the government’s misdirection. This behaviour is very similar to that of a dishonest tenant who raises all kinds of complaints when the homeowner comes to collect rent simply to avoid paying the full amount that is owed,” Rajendra Singh, Secretary of Independent English School Association (IESA) which has 4,000 private schools as members, tells Swarajya.
Meanwhile, the minister for School Education Varsha Gaikwad says that the the decision to cut RTE reimbursements was taken because of paucity of funds as a result of Covid-19 due to which ‘all financial resources have been prioritized to deal with the pandemic’.
The school owners don’t buy this argument. They see it as the latest step in a series of decisions taken over the years to frustrate the schools.
”We feel that they don’t want to continue with the RTE. But if they do away with the act, there would be public outcry so the idea is to squeeze the schools so much that they are forced to stop RTE admissions. It‘s not that the government doesn’t have the money. The intention is not there. Otherwise, the Centre pays for 75 per cent of the reimbursed amount under RTE anyway. But if you don’t spend, how would you ask from the Centre? The schools are yet to receive hundreds of crores of pending dues from the last three years,” Singh says.
“Earlier, we were fighting for pending dues. Now, this decision to cut the reimbursement itself in half is so big that we would forget about the dues and focus on fighting this new battle. That’s exactly what their goal is behind these annual distractions,” he adds.
Singh tells Swarajya that the schools are fed up and would no longer be taking any student under RTE in the short term. In the long term, the idea is to take the matter to the court. “The petition is ready. We will file it next week. The Maharashtra government is already in contempt of court for it had filed an affidavit stating that it will pay RTE reimbursement to schools on time ,” he says.
According to Singh, as many as 14,000 private schools under various associations in Maharashtra are standing firm against the government’s decision.
”At a time like this when schools are suffering heavily due to Covid-19 pandemic where on the one hand they have to pay teacher salaries in full while not receiving the complete fees from the parents, it’s impossible for schools to survive a blow like this. It shows very clearly the government’s intention to not fulfil its obligation and commitment towards children admitted in the private schools under the RTE act,” says Bharat Malik, head of Maharashtra chapter of National Independent Schools Association (NISA).
Malik tells Swarajya that private schools feel cheated by the government and assures that there will be big agitation in the state against the move.
“At every step, the schools are threatened that they will be de-recognised if they don’t fall in line. But we have reached a point where schools are mentally prepared for even that. They are saying that it’s better to be de-recognised than going through all this harassment. Then the responsibility of all the RTE students falls on the government. Even the non-RTE students will suffer as they will have to change schools. If thousands of schools (most are budget ones) which are standing up to the government get de-recognised in one go, then the supply will come down, fees will go up and students coming from poor and lower middle classes will suffer the most,“ Malik explains the consequences of squeezing the private capacity by high-handed approach of the government.
Malik informs that due to the pandemic, schools had decided not to raise the fees last year and had to invest in teachers more due to online mode of education (buying laptops and subscriptions for online teaching, etc). Moreover, they still haven’t received the fees from children and budget private schools have accepted whatever parents could afford as it was a difficult year. Still, local politicians come to schools with threats that they reduce fees by half, he says.
“How are budget private schools supposed to survive if they continue to pay teachers, don’t even receive money for years from the government for RTE students and facing the pandemic situation where parents are unable to pay the full amount?,” Malik wonders.
School owners say that populism of the government and its unwillingness to spend money from its coffers has made matters worse.
“Schools have been one of the worst hit entities in the pandemic. Last year, we had to close down just before the exams took place. As far as budget private schools are concerned, parents usually pay the full fees only after the examination. There is no hard and fast rule of fee payment on certain date of every month which is the case with big schools. After lockdown, the government said that the parents need not pay the fees. Parents thought that the government will find some solution, perhaps will pay schools on their behalf. But that didn’t happen,” Jagruti Dharmadhikari, owner of a budget private school in Pune, tells Swarajya.
“Moreover, many parents moved back to their hometowns with their children. With lockdowns still in place, schools are not sure if they will even get their old strength back let alone new admissions. In such a situation, where schools aren’t getting full fees and are expecting much less revenue due to fall in enrolment, cutting RTE compensation which was already so less, will make them completely unviable,” she adds.