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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Voucher Days Are Here? And Question of Stats

Is India catching on to the idea of education vouchers for school children proposed by Milton Friedman many years ago? At least IE editorial, apparently, has taken notice. There is lot of voucher literature and support for it among parents, maverick principals, and education experts, and, of course, economists in US, but the all powerful American teachers union - probably the strongest union anywhere - crushes the idea whenever it raises its head.

Instead of investing so inefficiently in education infrastructure alone, the government should shift much of the subsidy towards those it is intended for, the students. This can be done by adopting an idea that has been around for long and, since Milton Friedman first popularised it, one that has lost its undeserved elitist gloss: education vouchers.

I know. That's exactly what I was thinking! What investing? By the time the eminent Education Minister does his caste and creed calculations for votes in the next elections and pushes reservations, based on the sliced and diced social and other, non-education related, data, through the Parliament, he doesn't have time or patience for primary education.

But isn't that precisely the point. What investment in primary school infrastructure? Spend that money, and more, for all children of school age in the nation, KG-intermediate (12th class) via vouchers - set payment for tuition and books for each child in every Indian family - no quotes or reservations required to make this happen. Shut down all the public schools as the attendance decreases or when other options are available. And watch the private sector transform the primary education industry in the cities, towns, and villages across the nation within a decade.

And the question of stats:

At a time when policy planners are debating ways and means to democratise nursery admissions, the news could not be more dispiriting. In the space of just a year, enrolment in primary schools has fallen. A nationwide study by an NGO, Pratham, has found that enrolment in classes I to VIII — or roughly, among children in the 6-14 age group — has fallen from 93.5 per cent to 93.2 per cent. In its geographical spread, the data has more alarming dimensions. In West Bengal, for instance, 8.1 per cent of children were not in school in 2006, compared to 4.3 per cent a year earlier. In Himachal Pradesh, a much cited success story in delivery of education, it has risen from 1 to 2.2 per cent. In Karnataka, from 1.9 to 5.5 per cent.

A drop of 0.3% (from 93.5 to 93.2) is dispiriting? Bengal's (is it time lose the west in it?) drop of 3.8 percentage points and Karnataka's drop of 3.6 percentage points seem high. But are these statistically significant? Don't tell me Pratham actually counted all school children across the country.