Choice for the poor or poor choice? India’s school choice policy

Experimental evidence from the implementation of India’s school choice policy

 

The private sector’s role in the provision of primary education in the developing world has steadily increased over the last 25 years. Proponents of school choice and some policy makers have been keen to leverage private sector provision to expand access to quality education.

In this paper, Vijay Kumar evaluates the impact of a government-implemented school choice policy in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The policy sets aside 25 percent places in private schools for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the government paying the tuition fees to private schools. Exploiting the lottery-based allocation of free places, the author investigates whether policy beneficiaries had improved learning and psychosocial outcomes relative to non-beneficiaries. The study cohort comprises 7-year-old children who entered class I in 2015. After 1.5 years of schooling, the author finds no difference in test scores of lottery winning and losing children on a range of subjects. However, the policy does appear to have a positive effect on self-efficacy. Only girls show statistically significant test score gains. Mechanism analysis reveals that majority of the applicants would have attended similar schools irrespective of the policy.

The results and analysis point to several policy implications:

  • First, the policy is mistargeted. This is primarily due to flawed policy design. Making eligibility contingent on income, whose determination is difficult in the Indian context, has enabled many ineligible households to participate in the program. 
  • Second, government spending on the policy is a direct income transfer from taxpayers to free place winners who are not the vulnerable populations, and hence is wasteful from a public finance and welfare perspective.
  • Third, as the policy seems to be alleviating a binding constraint for girls, reserving significant proportion of free places for girls can enhance its effectiveness.

About the author

Vijay Kumar is a DPhil in Public Policy student and is working on understanding the efficiency and equity aspects of India’s Right to Education Act. 

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