Why do many poor children not attend school? The reply heard usually is that their families are so poor that they need their children to work to support their incomes, and that the government has been lax in establishing free education facilities at the primary level. No doubt these are responsible, but a little piece of news doing the rounds during the last few weeks points to another flaw that you probably never considered - millions of Indian kids are out of school because the places that were reserved for them by law were instead given to others like you and me. The schools that educate many of our most privileged children have in many cases received money and other aid from the government, in the process explicitly promising to educate the poor as well for free. But once their grants were made the promise to educate indigent children was conveniently shelved.

That may be about to change. In April the Supreme Court ordered the directorate of education in the nation's capital to investigate the compliance of government-aided schools with the original terms of their aid, and if the Delhi schools are found to be in breach of those terms, to begin enforcing them. Do the numbers. Hundreds of schools, and hundreds of seats in each school, add up to tens of thousands of children in the capital alone whose enrollment in these government-supported schools was paid for by grants and concessions from the state administration. And guess who really got the benefit of the education that was denied to these children? The wo/man in the mirror, that's who.

Ironically, this case - Modern School versus Government of India and others - landed on the court's desk partly as a result of litigation launched by some of the undeserving beneficiaries. Parents complained that continuous raises in tuition and other costs at these schools is turning education mindlessly commercial. Schools are registered as non-profit trusts and societies in India, thus explicitly accepting a public interest course for themselves. The parents believed that managements at most institutions were operating their organisations more like robber barons than like guardians of this public trust, often extorting money that wasn't even applied to improve the institutions where their children were enrolled. Angered and frustrated, the parents turned to the courts for relief from mounting costs.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court concluded that the director of education could oversee tuition fees at government-aided schools as well as set limits for such fees and other charges. Being government-assisted, these schools would have to accept some oversight of their compliance with the purposes for which the government provides support, usually by making land available cheaply. If the justices had stopped there, the parents would have responded with uniform cheer. But, to the stunned horror of school managements and the chagrin of many parents, the court went further than they had demanded, ordering that compliance with all the conditions of the government aid they've received must be fulfilled.

One of those conditions is that 25% of seats should be set aside for children from poor families, and their education be funded by freeships.

The same parents who clothed themselves in downtrodden robes pleading their inability to keep up with rising costs aren't so keen on seeing their children put in classrooms alongside the really poor kids.
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This seems only fair. When so many parents are getting a break from the ridiculously high costs of educating their children, surely they shouldn't mind the court extending its watchful pen to provide opportunities for some indigent children as well. Right? Alas. The same parents who clothed themselves in downtrodden robes while pleading their inability to keep up with rising costs of their wards' learning aren't so keen on seeing their children put in classrooms alongside the really poor kids whose families can't even afford the first rupee of their education. Now, their skin-deep faith in the value of government regulation to preserve the ideals of education is quickly replaced by fear that school managements will make them pay for the cost of teaching those children as well.

As a result, the full range of upper class fears is now out in force, arguing that implementation of this ruling would be a retrograde step. And this time the parents are happy to support the management of the schools, who are similarly concerned that their illegal golden goose of all these years is about to have its head chopped off.

The high standards of these schools will be dumbed down by the poorer kids, we are warned. Separate - and of course, equal - facilities should be set up for poor children, it is argued in terms eerily reminiscent of the segregationist tendencies of American education. Managements predict that the directorate of education will use this ruling to return to the old days of shake-downs and harassment over licenses and compliance, and all the 'reforms' of the past fifteen years will be washed away by this over-reaching ruling. Why can't the government just pay the cost of educating poor children at these schools, if it's so concerned about their education, the principals ask. Another proposal is for the schools to be allowed to simply buy off the land allotted to them at market rates today, and extricate themselves from the burden of having to provide freeships.

Farzana Cooper

Spare me this blather. This sociological yoga would have had some merit before the managements of these institutions inked their deals with the state government to get their hands on land and other aid they could never have afforded otherwise. Now, this is simply a contract they have been caught cheating at, and would prefer to go on violating. They should be glad that the Court didn't order the whole lot of them to cough up the full cost of every seat they haven't provided to the poor over the decades they've been at their crookedness.

Nor is the defense very compelling. 'Separate and equal' is by now well understood to be little more than bigotry in the guise of policy rather than brute force. Inspectors demanding bribes from school managements can be checked if those managements would begin to treat parents as allies of their educational institutions, and maintain a transparent set of books. The government has already paid for the cost of educating the poor children per the original contract, so school managements should stop pretending that there is an unmet cost that the state administration is avoiding. And as for the land, that's another scam waiting to happen - it's no secret that in this climate of disinvesting state assets, what school owners really hope for is to walk away with huge chunks of property deliberately priced below their actual value.

Other states of our nation, we can be sure, are taking notice. All over India, state governments and school trusts have come to agreements that are very similar to those in Delhi, and nearly without exception the terms have been ignored once the contracts were signed. The potential overflow from the Court's ruling - now limited to Delhi - is not lost on anyone, and the tornado of change in public education is on its way. Nor is this threat limited to government-aided schools; even unaided institutions have made promises they do not care to remember now, and are just as vulnerable.

Over the next few months, the Delhi government will begin looking into the operations of the aided schools, and possibly scale back some of their commercial excesses. At the same time, it must also determine the extent to which schools are violating their agreements to provide freeships for poor students, and - since violations are universal - come up with a corrective course.

Managements and parents - hitherto bitterly opposed on the question of fees and charges - are suddenly friends again, since this time the target is a common enemy, the city's poor. Their opposition to having disadvantaged children in the same classrooms as their sons and daughters shows up another lie. In any discussion of caste-based reservations in colleges or government jobs, one commonly finds those from upper caste backgrounds who insist that economic need - and not caste - is a more efficient and defensible basis for affirmative action. Maybe. But this verdict and its aftermath are a reminder that expressions of support for class-based reservation are often not genuine, but simply a weapon to use against lower castes demanding upward mobility. When a court reminds our institutions of privilege of their promises to implement such class-based reservation, the arguments shift once again.

This verdict and its aftermath are a reminder that expressions of support for economic class based reservation are often not genuine, but simply a weapon to use against lower castes demanding upward mobility.
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The charade has to end. The parents are right in pointing out that education serves a nobler purpose beyond the private profit of those who run schools. But that argument cannot end when they obtain relief from high fees for their own children. The great sorrow is that if private institutions had honestly adhered to the bargains they made with the states in the 1970s, millions of children could have been educated who are now illiterate, and a system with widespread participation from all class backgrounds could have evolved to meet many challenges - finance, enrollment, retention, access, etc. Indeed, with such an effort, we may even have made some progress in separating vexing questions of caste from economics, which is the real barrier in many cases.

But better late than never; the shameful neglect of contractual obligations by schools and governments alike cannot be rewarded with further concessions to class privilege. The Court must put class is session for all children.