India has just enacted a Right to Education Act, guaranteeing every child in the six to 14 age group the right to free, compulsory education. The new law is essentially socialist: it seeks to ensure that, as far as possible, state governments provide free government schooling to all children. But it also obliges private schools to reserve a quarter of their seats for poor and low-caste children. This could, almost by accident, create the biggest school choice programme in the world, covering 30 million children.
The new law has several flaws. Government teachers cannot be fired, one reason why teacher absenteeism in government schools is chronically high. In one survey by a Harvard economist, a quarter of government teachers were absent on any given day, and only half were teaching. The law does not address teacher accountability. Teacher unions are too powerful, so politicians dare not discipline them.
Currently, millions of children complete school without being able to read simple paragraphs or do simple sums. Yet the act talks only of access to schools. It is concerned wholly with educational inputs, not outcomes. It provides a right to schooling, but not to education.
Children from richer families perform better because they get private tuition in the evening, sometimes from the very teacher who was absent at school in the morning. The new law prohibits government teachers from giving private tuition. This is supposed to induce them to take teaching in school more seriously. Alas, teachers will break this rule with impunity.
The law mandates quality standards and official certification for all private schools, but none for government schools. Government teachers are armed with the appropriate degrees, while many private school teachers are not.
Yet, in the absence of motivation or accountability, teaching in government schools is so pathetic that many poor parents in urban slums send their children to fee-charging private schools rather than free government schools. Often these private slum schools are of low quality, yet poor people find government schools worse.
The new law says all private schools must reserve a quarter of their seats from first grade onwards for neighbourhood children from "socially and educationally disadvantaged classes" - lower Hindu castes and poor people, who are well over half the population. For these children, the government will reimburse private schools.
This will not be the standard voucher system found in other countries. Indeed, many politicians hate the very word "voucher", and view the 25 per cent reservation as a way of hammering elite schools rather than empowering students through school choice.
Elite private schools fear the system will impose a huge and unwarranted tax on them because the voucher will not cover their actual costs. They will probably appeal to the courts against the new law's reimbursement provisions, and it remains to be seen what view the courts take.