Only four days are left before the deadline for children wishing to take admission under the Right to Education (RTE) Act ends on February 28. Uncertainty shrouds the admission process this year, with private schools’ associations approaching the High Court against the state education department. School managements have already declared that they won’t be giving the admissions allotted by the government. In the fight between the school education department and private schools, it is the students from economically weaker section (EWS) who stand to lose the most.
For the last five years, admissions to EWS quota seats are being given to students under the RTE Act at all schools in the state, except those which are exempt, such as minority institutions. Twenty five per cent of the total seats are to be reserved for these students. Admissions on these seats are given through an online lottery.
In return for the reserved seats for EWS students, the government is supposed to pay a fixed amount to the schools, which has been revised to close to Rs 17,000 per year. However, for the last five years, a large chunk of these dues are pending. The schools have now come together and told the government that they would no longer give RTE admissions unless all previous dues are cleared.
These schools had made their intention clear in October itself. The state education department did release a part of the payment but schools claim it is a small proportion of what is owed. The process of RTE registrations started in January, with schools beginning to register themselves online by giving details of their entry point (whether Class I or junior kindergarten) and total seats available for RTE students. Many private schools refused to register themselves, following which the education department collected previous years’ data and filled registered those schools on its own.
School associations said it amounted to data forgery as their information was used without consent or verification. “In the two years, a school may have got minority status or shut down its pre-primary section, thereby effecting a change in entry point. Supposing a student gets a pre-primary seat in a school whose entry point now is Class I. Then whose mistake is it and who will suffer, “ said Rajendra Singh, president of the Independent English Schools Association (IESA), which has over 800 member schools in Maharashtra.
The IESA has moved the Bombay High Court, asking that the schools be paid the reimbursement amount and not be coerced into offering admissions before that. The HC has directed the government not to take any action until February 28, the next date of the hearing, against defiant schools.
Mismatch in figures
The two sides have different assessments of the amount owed to the schools. Education department officials claim that the amount due to the schools, from 2012 to 2016, is no more than Rs 302.48 crore, of which 154 crore has already been given. Of the remaining 150 crore, Rs 30 crore was recently sanctioned and therefore, they claim, the dues are not more than Rs 120 crore.
IESA, on the other hand, claims that total dues are about Rs 955 crore. The organisation claims that 2,60,982 students have been admitted under RTE since 2012. The total amount owed was Rs 1,107.31 crore, of which the state government has given only Rs 154 crore.
The schools say the discrepancy was because the government has been calculating the reimbursements only for fresh admissions every year, and not for students admitted in previous years who continue to study at the schools for free. Officials, on the other hand, say private schools are hyping up numbers. They say every year, a large number of RTE seats go vacant, especially in rural areas.
In Pune district, for example, out of the 17,000 RTE seats in 2016, the highest in the state, close to 8,000 seats had remained vacant. Schools are not allowed to fill these seats up through regular admissions. Education officials claim that the students are calculating reimbursement amounts based on the number of seats and not the number of actual admissions.
While pending reimbursement is the most contentious issue, the online application process has also come under criticism. To eliminate the problem of refusal by schools to grant admissions to EWS children, on the pretext that parents do not submit income proof or produce fake documents, the education department ordered that no online form (except from those belonging to reserved castes) could be accepted without the reference number of income certificate issued to the parents.
However, education activists say this move could keep several students away. “Many parents are not aware of what documents are needed before the process starts. If a parent doesn’t have an income certificate, the previous process allowed him or her to obtain one and submit it at the time of admission. It takes a few weeks’ time to obtain an income certificate. But that is not possible now. What happens to parents who are unaware about this requirement, and a large number of these people actually are unaware,” said education activist Mukund Kirdat.