More than a year has passed since the Gujarat government brought in a law to regulate fees of private or self-financed schools in the state. The law was enacted with an aim to control the “exorbitant fees” charged by the private schools “in the absence of a clear law” regarding it. However, the government’s quest for control over private schools has achieved adverse rather than favourable results, bringing chaos to school campuses across the state. With litigations plaguing the implementation of the law, schools have delayed their academic session, parents are confused and students are facing the brunt of all this with many denied admission.
Twenty years ago, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) partnered with French educationalist Pascal Chazot and his wife Anju Musafir to set up the Mahatma Gandhi International School (MGIS) in what was the Mithakhali Shala No. 20, which was owned and run by the civic body. The decision to set up Gujarat’s first “international school” met with immense local and political resistance as the students of the Mithakhali Shala No. 20 had to be shifted to another municipal school nearby. One of the conditions of the agreement with the AMC was that the MGIS, right from its inception in 1998, would admit 20 per cent students from economically weaker sections every year — a precursor to the Right to Education Act (RTE) that made it mandatory for every school to admit 25 per cent of students from underprivileged sections from 2010.
The school was scheduled to start its academic session from June 22. But it opened only last week. The reason cited: the fee regulation law. According to the school management, they are finding it tough to sustain with the enactment of the fee law that has put a cap on the annual fee charged for primary, secondary and higher secondary classes at Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000 and Rs 27,000, respectively. The school had sought permission from the Fee Regulation Committee to charge Rs 99,000 per year from each student, but the government-appointed panel fixed the provisional fee at Rs 55,000 per year. “To create a one-size-fits-all approach will condemn the schools that are running with sincerity and they will not be able to function. That was one reason we were not able to start our school because there was no way that we can pay salaries to our teachers and staff,” says the school’s founder Anju Musafir.
The MGIS case, many educationists say, is only the tip of the iceberg.
The RTE tangle
Nearly a hundred kilometres away in Vadodara, almost 400 students from underprivileged sections have been left in a lurch this academic session after being denied admissions by private schools under the RTE quota. According to some estimates, parents of a majority of 1.25 lakh children, who had applied under the RTE Act, are running from pillar to post to ensure admission of their wards in private schools.
On the surface, this may seem unrelated to the school fee regulation law. But dig deeper, one would find that the genesis of this problem lies on the doorstep of the fee law.
“Finances of the schools have been hit badly by the school fee regulation. Schools have been allowed to collect only provisional fees from students while the matter is still pending in the courts. Earlier, schools used to cross-subsidise education of 25 per cent students from below poverty line families enrolled under the RTE quota with the fees collected from other students. The government pays only Rs 10,000 to schools for every student it enrolls under the RTE. But that amount is highly insufficient as schools provide other facilities besides academic training,” explains Dharmesh Mehta, who runs a private school in Rajkot and is also a member of the Fee Regulatory Committee of Saurashtra zone.
Giving the example of Genius English Medium School, a private school that he runs, Mehta said so far he is making-do.
“We started enrolling students under the RTE quota three years ago. Our total annual intake is 120 students. As mandated by the RTE Act, 30 new students have to be admitted under the RTE quota. But ours being an English-medium school, few (BPL) parents prefer our school, and in the past three years, we have admitted around 50 students under the RTE. Our academic fee is Rs 40,000, plus around Rs 20,000 for other facilities. But the government pays us only Rs 10,000 per student, leaving us with deficit of Rs 25 lakh. To ensure our operations remain sustainable, we shift the burden of students enrolled under the RTE quota on the remaining 1,500 students of our school. Effectively, these students are paying around Rs 2,000 more to ensure that those enrolled under RTE get academic and other training at par. Since the ongoing case against the fee regulation law is pending in the Supreme Court, we are allowed to charge only provisional fee, which is a quarter of the amount of Rs 40,000. Since the number of students admitted under the RTE is small, we are making do as of now. But as years will pass, the number will go up proportionately and if some mechanism to cross-subsidise their study is not devised, we may be in a dire situation,” Mehta adds.
Back in Vadodara, 16 of the 29 minority schools were served notices by the District Education Officer (DEO) after they refused to take students under the RTE, citing a 2014 verdict of the Supreme Court that exempts schools run by religious and linguistic minority schools aided or unaided from the RTE Act.
Of these 16 schools, nine filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court, challenging the DEO’s order. In addition to it, schools and parents associations filed a PIL in the High Court. The Association of Progressive Schools (AOPS), comprising over 40 public schools in the state, has challenged the state’s rules framed for the RTE admissions in the High Court. With the High Court yet to give its verdict in the matter, the 400 students have been left in a lurch.
“Parents have been flocking at the DEO office, but now we do not know how long this is going to go on. We want a solution but this wait is unendurable. We don’t know what are we fighting for. Why can’t our children just be admitted to any other school under the RTE? We are stuck in the court case between the DEO and the minority schools. How was it our child’s fault that he got admitted into a minority school? Now, look he doesn’t go to school at all,” says the father of one of the affected students.
The issue is already taking a political colour with parents of the children denied admission under the RTE getting support from Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel and Independent MLA from Vadgam Jignesh Mevani and Congress MLA from Radhanpur Alpesh Thakor. Last month, Hardik and Alpesh protested against admission being denied to students by Udgam School in Ahmedabad and had tried to lock the office of DEO. “In Gujarat, scams are happening in the name of education. Instead of giving admission to underprivileged children, the schools are giving admission to children of rich families on donation,” Hardik had alleged.
Manan Choksi, the executive director of Udgam School, denies the charges, but questions the RTE rules. “In an attempt to do good, the government ended up making the situation worse. For instance, there is no transparency in the fee decided by the fee regulation committees, while one school gets approval of Rs 80,000, the other’s fee is slashed to half. Also, for the fee decided by these committees there is no justification or logic as to how this amount has been fixed,” Choksi, who is also the president of AOPS, says.
All eyes on Supreme Court
While the schools have showed reluctance in following the fee limit announced by the state government despite the High Court’s order in which it rejected the demand of self-financed schools to declare the Act unconstitutional. The schools now have hopes from the Supreme Court which has passed some breathers to the school. The next date for hearing is this week.