The myth of free public education and the opportunity for big departure

-This article has been originally published by Akash Shrestha in The Himalayan Times on November 26, 2017.

When the Constitution of the country says “Every citizen shall have the right to get compulsory and free education up to the basic level and free education up to the secondary level” it is no wonder many of us perceive public education as a free public service. Naturally then, private education appears to be an expensive alternative to it. Some have even gone on to label private educators as unethical profiteers considering the vast difference between the two. But is public education free? Can it even, be free? The simple answer is a plain ‘no.’ But it does not just end there. There are greater implications for public education in the model that we are running it in currently.

Public education is as expensive as private education, and is getting costlier

A study of public schools in eastern Jhapa shows that in 2015/16 we spent Rs. 16,097 per student. This was a growth of over 50% in the last five years. To that, when the researchers factored the fact that retention rates and pass rates are considerably low in public schools, this same cost per child shot up to Rs. 25,799 and 27,883 respectively in the year 2015/16.

When we account for performance variables such as enrollment, retention rate and pass rate, the story changes entirely. If the current state declining outcome of public education continues, cost of public education will further rise and will be costlier than private schooling.

Parents hold schools accountable when they are paying from their own pockets

When parents have to pay for their children’s education, they expect value for money in return. It has been found that parents are not as concerned about the quality of education their children are getting at schools or even about the performance of their children at school as they are in case of paid coaching sessions. Discussions with teachers who have been part of these coaching sessions prior to exams have revealed that parents perceive regular classes as a free commodity that government and other members of the community pay for. This, merged with the busy schedules of parents themselves means that parents have no time to follow up with the schools about their children’s education. However, when they are paying for these coaching sessions, they make time for regular follow up.

This behavior of parents hints that if we want to enhance the quality of our public education, then we also need to create spaces for parents to be directly attached with financing of their children’s education. While it does not lay grounds for questioning public spending in education per se, it does raise a flag and hint that if parents perceive education as a free commodity, it does not yield desired results.

Opportune moment big departure is here

These discussions regarding existing financing model of public education, size of public investment on education, and quality of output of public investment on education point to the fact that there is an urgent need to introduce a structural reform in the sector. Since education runs heavily on taxpayers’ money, it becomes imperative to ensure that allocation of resources is optimal to the extent possible, their use – efficient, and quality of outcome – high.

The changed governance structure of the country offers a new opportunity for the local government to step in, and introduce that structural reform in public education to make a big departure towards enhanced public education. The fact they are closest to the ground means that they are ones who can ensure efficient allocation and use of resource the best. Constitution of Nepal, 2015 also confers the power of regulating basic education upon local governments. Lesson from behaviors of parents under different circumstances (as funders of education versus as recipients of a free commodity) also points to the fact that parents can play a big role in holding community schools accountable, thereby aligning parents’, governments’ and taxpayers’ interests.

Having said that, the path ahead for local governments, should they opt to introduce the reform is challenging to say the least. First, there is no clear legal framework yet regarding how the local governments can actually go about exercising their powers related to education. Therefore, other state mechanisms related to the education sector are also not clear on where they fit into the new picture and what role they play as facilitators for local governments, and how they play those roles. No government body yet knows the size of resources that will be at the local governments’ disposal to implement their plans and programs.

Even when these legal frameworks come into place, there could be natural resistance of many other stakeholders, primarily schools and teachers towards reform ideas if they challenge the interests of these groups. One of the major questions for local governments to find answer to will be therefore to figure out ways to align the best interests of parents, governments and taxpayers to those of community schools and teachers. Further studies to find answers to these questions is therefore another need of and for local governments.