Friday, October 3, 2014


This continues the argument in the previous column.


Last November I wrote a column proposing that boys should have to take a test to qualify for being allowed to be schooled with girls. Of two mothers, one said that girls could learn to survive in a men’s world only by dealing with boys at an early age: that she had so much trouble handling her male colleagues because she went to a girls’ school, and she had sent her daughter to a coeducational school. Another mother wrote just the opposite: that she would never have succeeded so well in an IIM and later in professional life if she had not been sheltered in a girls’ school. But she said something else that was interesting: that parents should also have to qualify to send a child to school. That set me thinking.
There are supposed to be 3½ million adults in California alone who are functionally illiterate – that is, who cannot take a written driving test or fill in an official form. California has a special problem because many have migrated from Mexico and do not know English. But the whole of US has a problem with public schooling: it leaves millions uneducated.
The conservative diagnosis of the problem is that teachers in government schools have secure jobs and do not teach; the solution is to introduce competition. Ever since racially separate schools were struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, children have a right and an obligation to go to a neighbourhood government school. So they are obliged to go to one of the nearest government schools – unless their parents pay to send them to private school. If the nearest school does not teach, it is just the children’s bad luck. What the conservatives advocate is that children should be given all or part of the cost the state government incurs to go and spend it on attending any school of their choice. Naturally, teachers’ unions oppose such proposals tooth and nail.
But three States have introduced school vouchers on a limited scale. Florida has started giving schoolchildren a standardized test. If a school’s students fail the test twice in four years, then they can go to another school; the State would give the child the tuition fee in a private school or the average cost per student in the district’s government schools, whichever is lower. The tests were introduced only recently, so only 53 students have migrated, but soon 60,000 will become eligible. Ohio has introduced a pilot project in Cleveland. If a family’s income is below twice the federally defined poverty level, its children qualify to migrate to a private school. They are given 90 per cent of the fee if the family is below the poverty line and 75 per cent if it is below twice the poverty line, but in no case more than $2250 a year. The lucky children are chosen by lottery – 3484 this year. The Milwaukee scheme is similar: the cutoff is 175 per cent of the poverty level, and the maximum fee payable is $5106. Not more than 15 per cent of the students of government schools can migrate; this year the number is 7996. In addition, rich activists have privately funded a Children’s scholarship fund. Their limit is 270 per cent of the poverty level. They contribute a part of the fee; the average is $1000. They get 1.25 million applications, and fund about 40,000 students.
Jodi Wilgoren of The New York Times visited two schools in Florida that had lost students as a result of migration; the impact on them was electric. They have recruited more teachers and reduced class size. They have dropped science and social studies which do not figure in the State tests, and started concentrating on eligible subjects – reading, writing and mathematics. They have stopped school picnics, and instead introduced “test fairs” – on Saturdays the children come and take mock tests. The tests typically involve multiple-choice questions; so the students are taught how to narrow down the choice – and thus increase the probability of getting the answer right. In other words, the schools have become more like the private tutorial classes one finds all over India.
Not all the arguments against school vouchers are self-serving: the question is, how far is the poor performance of children the fault of teachers, and how far due to other causes. Poorly performing children come from poor families, often families headed by single mothers or even grandmothers, for many single mothers abandon the children and grandmothers adopt them out of pity. They come from families which have never seen a book. They are often children seen as superfluous or a nuisance, who never get any sympathy from adults. America’s youngest murderer, a child of six, shot dead a girl in his class in February. His 25-year-old father was in jail, his mother was a drug addict. He had no bed in his house, and slept wherever he could find space and peace. It is doubtful if he got regular meals. Newborns or infants are often found left dead in rubbish heaps. Not all families are this bad. But there are many families in which children live on sufferance; education is a very low priority amongst the parents of such children.
Besides, if children are allowed to migrate, not all will be able to. Only those can who are taken by better schools. The better schools will also be worried about their standards, and will take only the better students. So the poor schools will be left with the worst students, and will become even more hopeless.
Even if the government pays the entire fees of a private school, sending a child to one inevitably entails additional costs for books, materials, uniforms etc; in India there would also be the costs of the schools’ ad hoc demands for money. A family has to be able and prepared to incur these. Really poor families may not be able to.
And then, a child does not become good simply by going to a good school. It becomes good by doing homework. It must have the minimum space and quiet at home to do it; and it would do far better if its parents actually helped her. These familial inputs are not available to many American children.

In a free society like America, it would be unthinkable; but we in India should be asking ourselves whether couples should not have to qualify to have a child. Activists in advanced countries get very exercised over child labour in India. But if they have to labour, it is not the children’s fault; it is their parents’ fault. We might, like good socialists, forbear to say that loudly: after all, poverty is a misfortune, not a fault. But one does not have to pass on the misfortune to a child; that is sheer cruelty. Especially these days when conception is perfectly controllable, surely it is not unreasonable to expect people to control it if they do not have the means to bring up a child. They can have all the fun without the responsibility of bringing up a child.