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Bailing out private schools

Opinion

June 15, 2020

In 2013, Mani (University of Warwick), Mullainathan (Harvard University), Shafir (Princeton University), and Zhao (University of British Columbia) published an article in Science magazine with the title ‘Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function’ (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6149/976%20).

The gist of their study was that poor people, under cognitive strain due to bad personal finances, lose the equivalent of 13 IQ points, which can be summed up as ‘poor people make poor choices.’ If that is true, then our decision-makers must be under tremendous strain, because the decisions they are taking suggest they have lost about 50 IQ points, and were maybe dropped on their heads as infants to boot.

Private schools have little agency in the corridors of power, which is why the government has forsaken private school education. Concerns of parents that send their children to private schools are brusquely brushed aside as being a rich elite’s problem. That is a lazy cop-out.

About 23 million Pakistani children are out of school. A little more than that, about 27 million, attend public schools. A comparable number, another 21 million, attend private schools. But here’s the kicker: of those 21 million in private schoolchildren, 20 million (almost all), attend private schools with monthly tuition fees less than Rs3,500 (many of them as little as Rs150!).

The children of the ‘elite’, that this government swiftly accuses its critics of belonging to, those paying anything upwards of Rs3,500 per month for school, make up only one million – a drop in the bucket. So, when you hear about private school children, remember that the vast majority of them do not come from economic circumstances too different from their public school counterparts. The low and middle-income private schools, for-profit and not-for-profit, are contributing to providing a service that the state has proven itself incapable of providing for seven decades.

The present pandemic is unprecedented in modern times and is, putting enormous pressure on the management of private schools, financial and otherwise. Children have not been to school since March. Although the issue of promotion to the next grade has been resolved, parents – supported by an activist judiciary – are demanding schools cancel or substantially reduce tuition fees for the period that children are not attending schools.

However, consider this: according to Census 1999-2000, the largest chunk of private schools’ expenditure went to teaching staff (57 percent), followed by salaries for non-teaching staff (11 percent) and rent of building (10 percent), adding up to 78 percent of total expenses. Even during a pandemic, when schools are closed, none of these expenses are discounted – that is, schools are still paying staff and rent, leaving little room for fee waivers of the magnitude being demanded.

If schools offer fee waivers, thousands of academic and non-academic staff will be laid off if they are not bailed out. Yet, while the government seems eager to allow reopening of even the most inconsequential sectors of the economy, even providing bailout packages to some, schools appear to be on no one’s radar. No wonder then that private schools (for-profit schools more so than not-for-profit ones) also want to reopen, so they can give parents their money’s worth and justify collecting tuition fees.

Various private school associations in cities and provinces have taken to protests, in some cases demanding they be allowed to reopen, in other cases declaring their intent to reopen on June 15, no matter what the government decides.

We have witnessed the manner in which markets reopened before Eid, despite assurances from retailers and businesses that SoPs will be adhered to. Do we have any reason to believe that schools will be capable of doing much better?

While private school managements may claim they are ready to reopen with safety procedures, we know they are not. Pushing for a date as close as June 15 demonstrates their lack of seriousness and understanding. They lack clarity about the scale of the challenge and the resources that are needed to safely reopen schools. Other countries, more ready than we are, have begun preparing procedures few here seem to have even thought about yet – disinfection of buildings, procurement of PPE (gloves, masks, sanitizers for staff and children), etc.

Are we to believe that schools, whose classrooms are ordinarily packed with pupils, have taken measures to ensure compliance with recommendations for physical distancing and ventilation? Without sufficient ventilation, no space for social distancing and no provisions for holding classes outside, schools reopening in congested buildings will become breeding grounds for the virus.

Another challenge will be getting to school. Children will either walk in throngs or travel in crowded public / private transportation to reach schools. In such circumstances, some parents are simply not going to send their children. Once children get sick, one cannot rule out the potential for violent reactions from parents / communities.

Education is a service that has associated externality – that is: society has a stake in seeing children schooled and have better livelihood prospects, which is why private schools must be supported during this pandemic. If these schools are closed, the number of out-of-school children rises. As anyone working in education development knows, once children drop out of school, there is almost no chance of getting them back, relegating many to the unskilled labor pool and making them a net economic burden, for the rest of their lives.

There is only one responsible choice here: Keep schools closed for the summer, and bail them out to cover their expenses, but not their profits, as some private school owners have been demanding. Issue clear guidelines for safe reopening of schools, and issue them early, so schools have time to ensure compliance. Merely pressuring schools into foregoing tuition fees will lead to school closures, and the resulting teacher/ other staff layoffs will further add to unemployment, which economic recovery ‘experts’ are not even factoring in yet.

As anyone operating a school (or other business) can attest, it will be cheaper to bail out a running school and keep it afloat for a few months, than to let it go under and build a new one. This (education) is where subsidies are really needed – not for that white poison called sugar, not for 20th century solutions like creating expensive lesson content delivered by TV. Who knows, this may win our government a few IQ points back.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Email: [email protected]