On June 1, the Delhi High Court quashed the Delhi government's order which prevented private schools from collecting annual charges and development fees amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The court said that in the absence of evidence of commercialisation, the government was not in a position to restrain private schools from collecting fees. The decision by the court is now being contested while highlighting the need for clearly defined regulations for private schools as well as the mandate of regulatory bodies.
This is the latest in a series of legal challenges by private school managements to government orders, many of which have come out in favour of private schools. This highlights the need for an umbrella legal framework that respects the autonomy of private schools as well as the rights of parents and students. It does not negate the need for urgent action to ensure private schools adhere with minimum regulatory standards and are in line with the human rights of students and their parents.
At the peak of the pandemic, 120 million Indians lost their jobs and 84 percent households suffered a loss in income. Responding to calls by parents suffering from the ensuing economic crisis, 13 state governments, including Delhi’s, issued orders/notifications, asking private schools to defer fee hikes. Despite such guidelines, an Oxfam India study found that close to 40 percent private schools hiked their fees during this time.
In violation of guidelines by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) which stipulate that students should not be harassed over non-payment of fees, many private schools blocked access to online education for students that were unable to pay the fees (in many cases, hiked). Such fee hikes were protested by parents across India, demanding greater regulation of private schools. A survey by the Fight Inequality Alliance India found that 94 percent respondents want the government to take steps to strengthen regulation of private schools.
It is here that the National Education Policy (NEP) becomes important. The NEP, which rolls out this month, acknowledges that the current regulatory regime has failed to prevent the exploitation of parents by private schools, and proposes the creation of an independent body called the State School Standards Authority (SSSA) for regulation of schools. While creating the architecture of this body, it would be crucial to learn from experiences of existing fee regulatory structures and legal battles. The SSSAs should keep the following core principles in mind:
Ensure involvement of parents in decisions around fee hikes: The SSSA should provide for a fee fixation and regulation committee at the school level wherein prior to a change in fees, approval would be needed of the said committee, whose members would be drawn from the parent-teacher association. Such committees already exist in Jharkhand and Rajasthan.
Include provisions for enhancing financial disclosure and transparency of accounts: The NEP recommends greater disclosure by schools. To enhance transparency of accounts, the expenditure account and balance sheet of private schools should be disclosed in the public domain, as provided in the fee regulation rules of Chandigarh.
Revenue generated by the school must be used to enhance infrastructure and staff salaries: Andhra Pradesh lays out clear percentages of heads under which the fee should be utilised, with the bulk (65 percent) going towards staff salaries and benefits. However, media reports show that some private schools spend less than 10 percent on teacher salaries. Further, anecdotal evidence shows that private schools divert the surplus revenue to a trust that runs it, instead of investing it for enhancing school infrastructure and raising staff salaries. This is explicitly disallowed by Punjab’s fee regulation.
The NEP should learn from these good practices and ensure that the revenue earned by private schools goes towards enhancing the quality of education and welfare of its staff rather than towards expansion of school chains.
Adequate resources to enforce regulatory framework: The NEP’s regulatory structures would need to be empowered and vested with adequate resources and human capacities. This is important because much of the complaints about the illegal behaviour by inspectors with respect to private schools is because they are currently inadequately staffed and resourced.
Measures taken by state governments during the pandemic show that change is possible.
Taking into account the wide-spread violations by private schools, the Chhattisgarh government passed the Chhattisgarh private school fee regulation Act in September which requires private schools to take parents’ consent before hiking fees. Assam has directed all private schools to waive off 25 percent of school fees for 2020. Additionally, Maharashtra has setup a committee to seek feedback from parents to devise more effective regulatory structures, while Karnataka has setup dispute redress committees at the district level.
Close to 50 percent of children in India are now enrolled in private schools. The central and state governments must learn from and build on existing regulatory structures such that private schools become institutions of learning where voice of parents is respected and revenue is prioritised for enhancing the quality of education in the school and welfare of its staff.