The Covid-19 crisis offers a glaring reminder of the fracture between the haves and the have-nots. In an era of widening inequity and growing fragmentation, there must be a renewed commitment to public education. An endowment of permanence and equity, public education is a lifeguard for the future, enabling all children to learn in the present while drawing on lessons of the past. In stark contrast, the private push for online education based on a compulsion to garner fees, collect cash or pursue business interests reflects a bankruptcy beyond the accounting books. Economics 101 exposes the shortcomings in private provisioning of education.

Information asymmetry on quality, short-term decision making for long-term and often intangible returns, as well as positive externalities result in a market failure where education is undersupplied. Hence, there is a need for the government. Time and again, the narrative we are sold is that private schools achieve better results; their graduates make it to better universities; and access better employment opportunities, dominating the upper strata in society.

But research and literature helps dismantle this storyline, for private schools tend to do better largely due to sorting effects. By offering education for the economically and socially privileged, they spur on a virtuous cycle. In fact, the hyped success of private education is less about the quality of education and more about the alchemy of advantage that exists outside the boundary walls of the school.

For example, a child who studies in a private school may have better nutrition and health care, literate parents and access to supplementary education through after-school coaching, better play-based learning etc. All of these are critical correlates of learning outcomes. While the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) shows, on average, at any given point in time that private school students typically have better learning outcomes, the trends offer a noteworthy revelation.

Despite a significant increase in the percentage of children enrolled in private schools since 2006, learning outcome improvements have been negligible. The 2018 report even attributes the slight rise in learning outcomes to progress in public schools. Advocates who band for private education as a means to further individual rights and choices often fail to acknowledge or discount a main stakeholder – the country.

The very ethos of our Constitution, which set the founding stones for the greatest reforms in history, highlights the role of education as a key pillar of development for all. In fact, public education serves as a gateway of equity for the vulnerable and marginalized sections of society. The proof lies in the ‘data’ pudding. While half the schools in urban India are private, the number of government schools in rural India is five times more. The government also runs four times as many exclusive schools for Children with Special Needs (CWSN); and has almost double the number of schools with CWSN enrolment. Even in rural regions, a disproportionally larger number of government schools offer vocational education.

The skew is visible in student enrolment as well. The perception bias in favor of private education is driving the enrolment of over 53 per cent of students in urban India whereas only one-fourth of the students in rural India are in private schools. On aggregate, enrolment in government schools exceeds half of India’s total student population. Data also consistently reveals that government schools provide inclusive education for girls and children from other social categories.

In terms of differences, private schools have a greater share of General Category students by 10 percentage points while public schools have more OBC, SC and ST students by 16, 41 and 56 percentage points respectively. This is clear evidence of the clustering of advantage in private schools, reiterating the presence of a parallel system for the better off which propagates social divisiveness. Current discussions tend to mask public school victories and detract away from its civic role.

Universalizing education by weaving India’s social fabric is undoubtedly a success of India’s public education. While it is true that the realities of government schools today sometimes fail to match the ideals of advancing the common good, this is no reason to abandon public education. Historically, this has only resulted in the alienation of many children. For example, Chile’s highly privatized education has adversely affected equity and amplified social stratification by fostering a system that thrives on selectivity.

There has been long-standing recognition that unequal education not only reproduces inequities across generations but also degenerates society. It is this realization that led the poster-child of school reforms, Finland, to invigorate its public education system. Etching the top-spot as a powerhouse of education, the country did away with its fee-paying schools and has since, closed the learning attainment gap between the richest and poorest students. The takeaway is therefore lucid – a country needs strong public schools which deliver high-quality education for all.

As the Covid-crisis threatens to deepen divides, the solution for education in India can neither be to do away with public education nor accept public schools as they are now. The answer is in tailoring contextualized solutions that reinforce existing public institutions. Greater investments in strengthening teacher training, integrating technology, augmenting early childhood education, improving governance systems and promoting systemic reform etc. can resurrect public education.

States like Kerala, Rajasthan and Delhi, which have augmented their public schools, have witnessed early results – a reverse migration of students from private to government-run schools, and significant improvements in learning. The benefits are ample. The greater the spread of families using public education, greater is the accountability. In fact, through its amalgamating role in creating an engaged and unified citizenry, public education is a cornerstone of a wellfunctioning democracy.

Therefore, supporting its resurrection is an exercise in citizenship in itself as better education will reduce disparities and spur economic growth. Without question, public education can serve as the most powerful instrument of upward mobility for crores of Indians. At a time when the pandemic portends rising poverty and falling social conditions, public education is a necessary bulwark.

(The writer is a Young Professional at NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal)