Let the poor choose!

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Government of Nepal has done a commendable job in taking up the responsibility of providing education – quality education, to be more precise – to all children in the country and transforming the country and lives of its people in the process. Programs like Education for All (EFA), Secondary Education Support Program (SESP), Community School Support Program (CSSP) and Teacher Education program (TEP) have been put together to enhance the quality of public education being delivered to the poor. After the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP), 2009, the government has, especially, scaled up public expenditure into education sector and has also attempted to make the teachers more accountable. Now that SSRP has come to an end, it calls for evaluating the program in terms of how successful it has been in delivering the promises it put forth.

If we look into the results of School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations, which is one of the proxies we use in Nepal in measuring the success of schools and the level of education that has been imparted upon the children, we can clearly see that the public education has failed. Poor students who largely depend on publicly funded education system are not showing results that justify the level of investment that has gone into their education. Last year, of the total students that appeared for SLC examinations, only 28% of those that were enrolled in public schools passed the test while over 93% of those that were enrolled in the private schools in different parts of the country passed the test.

SLC results

Why has this been happening?

Public education in Nepal lacks an effective reward and punishment mechanism for teachers. Teachers neither get credited for the great inputs, nor are punished for being irregular at schools.

For a majority of the people in the rural parts, when their children go to schools, they become one of the first family members to do so. Therefore, the knowledge that their children are enrolled in a school implies (for these parents) that their children are getting good education. Especially in the rural nooks and crannies of the country, where monitoring can be a challenge in itself, there is no mechanism in place that keeps the teachers on check from submitting to their will of whether or not to run classes on any given day.

Even when some of these poor parents try to communicate with the teachers, the teachers have been (time and again) found to be indifferent towards their concerns. The popular defense for this is that this behavior of the teachers could be dealt with by offering them various trainings. But in having said that, it seems to have discounted the fact that GoN has already been running training programs (like Teacher Education Program) that are intended to developing attributes of teachers in these public schools. This hints that the teacher education programs could be running ineffectively and investments in these programs are not being best used.

Text books not reaching the students on time has also been a problem for the public education system in Nepal for years now. There are public schools in Nepal which do not get books and other study materials delivered to them as late as the last few months of the academic session. When teachers are not accountable towards the students and their parents, and have no incentives to deliver his/her best for these students, having no text-books only makes the situation worse as this gives public schools more reasons to take the future of these children for granted.

While the public schools have failed to deliver as per their spending, private schools have been luring more and more students every year and have also been growing in number. Parents all around the country feel that private schools deliver much better quality of education than the public schools do. A considerable portion of the remittance from the Nepalese migrant workers working in the Middle East going into the education evidences the desire of the poor to invest in good education.

Voucher system as an alternative

The flaws in the existing public education system will only come from a re-structuring of the system. Public education can definitely be made better with the right kind of commitment from all stakeholders.. What that means is that the poor are going to have to wait and depend on the very same inefficient public sector. The moral question here is: Does being poor mean that one necessarily waits for the government to choose ways to make things better for him?

The most economical way right now to revamp the whole public education and make it efficient and competent is by allowing the parents/students to choose schools on their own. As the data show, private schools fare much better in terms of imparting quality education to their students. School choice/ voucher system will introduce the must-have mechanism of reward and punishment in the public education. This will mobilize the teachers in the most effective way.

Under voucher system or the school choice program, the government funds individual students instead of funding schools. It funds the consumer instead of funding the supplier. Government selects the target families in terms of their ability to afford a quality education and hands them a voucher. The students can now choose to go to the school of their choice. This allows the parents to have their children in the schools that have been yielding the best results and are known for the education they impart on their students. When school fees need to be paid, these parents can produce the voucher that the government has given them to the school that they have chosen. In an article titled ‘Free to choose, and learn’ published by The Economist in May 2007, the principle of voucher system has been explained succinctly: “The state pays; parents choose; schools compete; standards rise; everybody gains.

This article was first published in Perspectives, The Himalayan Times, on January 19, 2015 under the title “Let the poor choose the education they want.”
Akash Shrestha

About Akash Shrestha

Akash Shrestha is Coordinator of the Research Department at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation where his focus areas are petroleum trade and public enterprises. He also writes newspaper articles, blogs and radio capsules, based on the findings of the studies conducted by The Foundation.