I had written a piece titled End the Textbook Circus on Feb 26. The post received nineteen comments with varied reactions. I am going to try and put my finger on the underlying argument that I think some commenters were making and then attempt to address them.

One reason for doing this exercise is that the opinions expressed come from valid concerns. If we consider disbanding the Department of Education, isn’t that a rather radical step? Would the same arguments not apply to the rest of government action? If so, why am I not commenting on military spending and instead focusing my lens on education? Others thought that social entrepreneurship takes time to succeed, given that the Grameen Bank took three decades to cover 7% of all women. Can we wait that long? Still others thought that free economies work well only under the purview of a regulatory watchdog.

These are all great questions. In the 1940s, some people wanted separate bathrooms for blacks as they claimed that black people sweat more than whites. These were called Jim Crow practices and created a furor, and researchers set out to prove that black people don’t sweat more than white. In fact, most white people can’t tell the difference and Chinese Americans find white sweat more distasteful. Everett Hughes criticized the researchers by pointing out a classic logic error (which is now immortalized in Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While Doing It). The researchers were challenging what is called a minor premise, that black people don’t sweat more. But by doing so, they had accepted the major premise, that people who sweat more should have separate bathrooms. Where did that come from?

In our analysis, we are stuck with the minor premise that certain government actions are better than others to facilitate education. The major premise, that government action is necessary or beneficial, goes completely unchallenged. I will argue that if India has done well with education, it is inspite of public schools. Most people who can afford it send their children to private schools. Even in private schools, Indians have learned not to rely on the system. If they can’t keep up with teaching in school, they go for private tuitions. This is a voluntary resolution of the so-called “learning disability” which acquires students in institutions that are unfortunate enough to recognize it. Students learn differently, and thankfully in India, we haven’t yet turned this into a disease like the US has done, so children are able to catch up later on in life. The Indian culture encourages the Pull Model, where the onus is on the student to acquire learning. In contrast, in the West, the onus is often on the teacher to reach out and break learning barriers. This difference is also one of the reasons for the “success” of Indian education, in the eyes of many educators.

In Delhi alone, several private schools have mushroomed and are there to earn the business of the “poor.” They provide education at a lower cost and parents prefer them to government schools. Yet, we insist that we need public schools to save our children. I will contend that one of the biggest barriers to the education puzzle in India is a regulation that prohibits entrepreneurs from making profit if they’re in the business of education. If this barrier is taken off, the sky is the limit. In India, social entrepreneurship would abound if it were not for the umpteen limitations placed on the creative mind.

Let me rest some of my arguments for the moment, as I am sure opinions against it will abound. I don’t think it is necessary for people to agree with what I’ve said so far, as what I’m going to suggest next should help us move beyond.

Let’s leave the Dept of Education alone. And let’s focus on creating a private board of education. A board that provides accreditation to schools that apply for it. Let this board function as a company and offer the accreditation as a pay-per-use service. Schools will undergo a rigorous testing process before they can get certified. The company (let’s call it MySyllabus Inc.) specializes in providing multiple accreditations. One is the Communist accreditation for those who want children to learn Marxist ideals. Another is the Hindutva accreditation for those who want children growing up in Hinduism. A third is a Madrassa accreditation, teaching children the essence of Islam and packaging science within an Islamic context. A fourth could be a Christian accreditation and a fifth could be an Atheistic accreditation. And a sixth could be a Universalist accreditation that takes a little bit of all of the above. The big service by MySyllabus will be to teach transcendental ideas of scientific inquiry, truth, honesty and ethics through the cultural context that people currently subscribe to through different ideologies.

A school can figure out which accreditation it wants. Within it, there will be standards of teaching and as long as it meets them, the accreditation is provided. Parents can decide where to send their children. They alone have the right to decide this. Will such a solution work?

Now, you might still argue that this is too radical. Alright, alright. Opinions abound. Let’s try another one. In the US, one of the best innovations has been the school voucher. The government spends a certain amount of money on each “poor” child’s education. Through a legislation, the parent of the child has the right to decide where this check will go. Would it be to the public school or the private one? By doing this, public schools have realized that they have to provide high quality service or they will close down. And children don’t have to pay the price for this. Why can’t we try a similar system in India? Give the parents of the children the right to choose?

I would go one step further and give taxpayers the right to choose where their education tax goes. In other words, all the government has to do is to tell me what amount of money from my income is being dedicated to education, and I will tell the government which NGO or public or private education-related organization should receive my hard-earned money. Through this system, I can do the research on my own and fund a school of my choice. Or, I can trust an NGO or education-oriented organization that will use my money wisely.

At the end of the day, the question boils down to this – do you want the right to decide where your education tax goes?

First published on Desicritics