In August, the Karnataka government decided to quash the system of electing parents to school development and monitoring committees (SDMCs) in over 50000 state schools; the government decided to open up those positions to MLAs for nomination. The top Karnataka government bureaucrat for primary and secondary education sent a letter to the Commissioner for Public Instruction to this effect. Ironically, it was the government's own order of April 2001 that set the stage for parents to have a direct say over state school affairs and participate in their management.

The original decision of 2001 aimed also at empowering SDMCs to target several ailments in the schools, including attendance of teachers' and punctuality, both chronic problems in government schools nationwide. The general council of a school's parents is the highest body; it elects 9 parent representatives and they in turn elect a president. The core group can co-opt other members into the committee who may not be parents of school children but may include elected representatives, officials and members of community at large. The committees have several powers: they can scrutinize finances of the school (receipts and expenditures), auction crops grown in the school lands and for accrual to the school education fund and also use government funds to buy materials required for the school.

Not surprisingly, the government's recent decision sparked off a stormy reaction from the development (read NGO) sector that has otherwise been working with the education department to strengthen the SDMCs statewide. In the last two months alone, the controversy has seen many noted individuals and experts coming together. The Centre for Child and the Law of National Law School India University (NLSIU) organized a meeting that brought together SDMC representatives, NGOs, support agencies, educationists, and researchers. They unanimously opposed the state government's move, charging the government with initiating 'political interference in local school functioning'.

The Congress-JD(S) government has not explained its reasons for the regressive step, but attempts by activists and education reform NGOs to meet with the Chief Minister have not produced any results either. A state level delegation consisting of Prof. Baragur Ramachandrappa (writer), H.S.Doreswamy (veteran freedom fighter), Veerabhadra Channamall Swamijee (Nidumamidi Mutt) and state legislators L.Hanumanthaiah and Chandrasekhar Khambar along with Dr.Niranjan Aradhya of CCL-NLSIU were due to meet CM Dharam Singh on 16 Oct when the CM cancelled the meeting at the last minute following the Congress party's victory in the Bidar by-election. Speculation has it that the state's teachers have not been happy with the SDMCs.

Dr.Niranjan Aradhya of the CCL-NLSIU has been leading education reform groups in their protests over the government's move. "The constitution and functioning of SDMCs is on the basis of democratic values and principles. The process of handing over the responsibility of constituting SDMCs to MLAs violates democratic principles. MLAs prefer their own party cadres from the parents' council and (will) make each school represented by a particular political party and ideology. This in turn converts each school into a political platform."

After the formation of SDMCs, all levels of schooling had made progress, says Aradhya, referring to a CCL-NLSIU study that evaluated the impact of community participation. "The quality of physical work and specially the quality of construction work of additional classroom/s, toilets and compound wall had improved as compare to the construction made by government agencies like land army and public work departments. Overall improvement in the enrolment, retention and day to day administration and monitoring are clearly evident from the study."

But substantial numbers of SDMC parent-members statewide did not know their responsibilities and roles clearly, the CCL-NLSIU study had also found. Educationists acknowledge this, but are quick to point out that more training for parents is needed, not disempowerment. Asserts Aradhya, "the study clearly emphasized that there is new mood at the grassroots after the formation of SDMCs by transforming passive stake holders into active decision makers in the area of universalisation of school education."

The previous government had taken the decision to constitute SDMCs with election of parents in response to recommendations from a government task force on education headed then by the noted Dr.Raja Ramanna. Former CM S M Krishna formed the task force to study problems of primary school education in the state. Under Ramanna's leadership the body drafted measures on improving the standards in primary and secondary education, especially in rural areas. Ramanna passed away in September. While the nation condoled the loss of one of its most noted scientists, educationists in Karnataka had additional reasons to miss the noted citizen's presence.

Just before his demise, Dr.Ramanna had sent a spirited letter to current Chief Minister Dharam Singh. He asserted that that government's move went against the letter and spirit of the report from the task force on education. He asked the government to retain the representative nature of SDMC, in effect pressing the government to revoke its controversial directive.

Whichever direction the government finally moves towards, there are several worrisome corners to this most recent of downturns in education reform. Elected lawmakers -- MLAs and MPs -- making appointments into the administration is not necessarily undemocratic in itself. If anything, the opposite, i.e., politicians appointing or approving individuals to key administrative positions is a privilege of legislative power and tradition. But the greater need for direct citizens participation in local oversight has always contrasted poorly with the eagerness of political parties to penetrate even the tiniest of elected 'public offices' in the country. This and the otherwise frustrating criminalization of politics have been at the root of widespread opposition to the government's decision.

Advocacy groups in Karnataka plan to continue working with the central and state governments on a new central legislation that may sanction direct representation of parents in school management.
Second, the 2001 order that brought in direct election of parents into SDMCs was a mere GoK circular. Vidhana Soudha did not bless the direct elections in the SDMCs with legislative sanction. Also, the school council elections do not compare with municipal and panchayat elections where the well ensconced Election Commission and related laws hold sway. Says Aradhya, "The school polls were understood to have the status of elections in the cooperatives and other registered bodies where internal democracy is encouraged. It has the status of an internal democracy procedure. The GOK agreed that an officer of the education department would be observer for these elections." That was all.

Third, it is an irony that a mere directive from the executive is supposed to allow a separate power (legislators) to seat handpicked parents into school councils. This indicates a messed up decision making process with lawmakers preferring a backdoor approach to more robust debate in the state legislature. After all, it involves the legislators.

Despite all of this, Aradhya and others are hopeful of more progress, not less. Advocacy groups in Karnataka plan to continue working with the central and state governments on a new central legislation that may sanction direct representation of parents in school management, he says. In the meantime, the immediate fate of the SDMCs hangs in limbo.