Executive Skills & Strategy

India Pushes Public-Private Ed. Partnerships

By Jason Tomassini — April 17, 2012 4 min read
Young Indian children study at an open air school in Jammu, India. A law making primary education compulsory in India came into effect, opening the door for millions of impoverished children who have never made it to school because their parents could not afford the fees or because they were forced to work instead.
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In an effort to boost enrollment and improve its public education system, India is turning to the private sector.

The government is planning to open 2,500 new schools under public-private partnerships over the next five years, the first such initiative in the country, according to Livemint.com, a business-news website in India.

India’s human-resource-development ministry is seeking applications from companies and foundations to open schools under such partnerships, part of a larger plan to open 6,000 new schools over the next five years, beginning next school year.

The ultimate goal is to provide enough schools to educate all of India’s children, many of whom, especially in impoverished areas, don’t attend school.

And in a large country of more than 1 billion people, with dozens of languages and local cultures, national standards for new schools could bring some level of consistency to education, not unlike the intention of the Common Core State Standards in the United States.

Scaling Up Quality

The public-private models are similar to American charter schools, though in the case of India, it’s the federal government seeking private operators for planned schools, rather than private operators applying to open new schools through a state or local entity.

Young Indian children study at an open air school in Jammu, India.

India offers traditional government-run schools as well, some of which are operated by the federal government and others by local governments. The government has set aside the equivalent of about $190 million for the 2012-13 school year for the initiative, according to Livemint.com.

Public-private school partnerships are important because the government must support organizations currently operating high-quality schools so they are able to scale up, much as the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, and Achievement First charter schools have done in the United States, said Allison Rouse, the chief executive officer of EdVillage, a Washington-based group that develops school leaders around the world, including in India.

For instance, Mr. Rouse said, EdVillage works with the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit group in Mumbai, India, that operates nine public schools in some of India’s poorest neighborhoods using a model inspired by KIPP, which emphasizes assessment, parent involvement, and extended school time. Those schools are in partnerships with their municipalities, but a national partnership could help the effort expand, he said.

Challenges Ahead

For American educators, it’s that relationship between local support, federal support, and private school managers that could provide lessons for how privately run public schools operate in the United States.

“How does a [central] government go about serving its schools by still giving autonomy to its states?” Mr. Rouse said in an interview.

India at a Glance

Population: 1.2 billion
GDP: $1.7 trillion
Number of children ages 6-18: 293 million
Number of children ages 6-18 enrolled in school: 247 million
School landscape: Provided by public and private sectors with control at federal, state, and local levels
Primary school student-to-teacher ratio: 44:1
Upper-primary student-to-teacher ratio: 34:1
Number of secondary schools: 113,824
Number of higher-secondary schools: 59,166
Higher education institutions: 564 universities and 31,324 colleges
Literacy rate: 74 percent

SOURCES: Government of India Ministry of Human Resource Development; World Bank; UNESCO

According to Livemint.com, the private entities will be responsible for all managerial aspects of the schools, including development, design, and management. A grant for 25 percent of infrastructure costs and the cost of education will be provided by the government, the report said.

India already has an extensive array of private schools, which make up a majority of the secondary schools in the country, Mr. Rouse said. Some charge only nominal fees. But in 2010, India passed the Right to Education Act, aimed at making high-quality education available to students who can’t afford more traditional private school tuition.

Whether the partnership initiative succeeds depends on exactly how the money is allocated and how much emphasis is put on improving education, rather than simply providing it, Mr. Rouse said.

“We think the challenge for India is to create millions of seats for kids, and at the same time keep an eye on the quality bar,” he said. “We want quality schools, not just spaces that house kids.”

Any operator, including for-profit companies or those without education experience, can apply to open a school, though there are checks in place to help make sure applicants are qualified, including requiring deposits and giving permission to companies with education track records and graduation results to open multiple schools, according to the Livemint.com report. Those measures could help ensure quality in typically underserved communities.

“The overall quality of teaching and the learning process remains very low in most places” in India, said Stephen Anzalone, a vice president and director of the Asia Regional Center for the Education Development Center, a nonprofit with headquarters in Waltham, Mass., that develops global education initiatives.

Business Opportunities?

What remains unclear is if and how Western education companies will become more involved in India because of the new public-private initiative.

K-12 education in India will be worth $29 billion by the end of the school year, Livemint.com notes.

Companies with large operations in the United States such as K12 Inc. and Pearson have looked globally to provide content, technology, and virtual education to students, and the Indian initiative could open doors for companies seeking new markets. For instance, K12 recently purchased a stake in an English-language education provider in China, and Pearson acquired a majority stake of TutorVista, an education services company in India that manages 24 schools there, according to Pearson’s 2011 annual report.

But so far, experts say, the demand coming from India for services provided by Western education companies has been limited.

Related Tags:
Partnerships Innovation

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as India Pushes Public-Private Partnerships for Education

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