Speaking at the launch of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in early January, the new minister for human resource development, Pallam Raju, made a push for school management committees—parent bodies mandated to make plans and monitor school functioning under the Right to Education Act—to become active partners in the governments’ effort to deliver education. As a long-standing advocate for greater decentralisation of our administrative system, this was music to my ears. But if the minister is really serious about involving school management committees (SMCs) in school functioning and making them real stakeholders in the education system, he has a difficult task ahead of him—that of fundamentally re-hauling the current planning and budgeting system for elementary education.
Here is the problem. The current planning and budgeting system for elementary education is designed to centralise rather than decentralise school functioning. And, in so doing, serves to dis-empower SMCs. When it comes to crucial activities related to school management—hiring/ firing teachers, building infrastructure, determining the nature and quantum of teaching material needed—it is the state bureaucracy and not the SMC that controls the purse strings and decision-making powers. Break down the elementary education budget and you’ll find that SMCs have expenditure authority over a tiny set of school grants that account for somewhere between 5-6% of the annual education budget. Consequently, even if an SMC were to take decisions for the school, it is left to the state bureaucracy to approve and implement these decisions.
Last year, I discovered how this works when I was part of an exercise aimed at mobilising SMCs to make plans for government schools in Hyderabad. In one instance, the SMC wanted, amongst other things, to purchase desks and chairs, repair a roof, and install a water tank for its school. But with the exception of the water tank, all other decisions had to go through the labyrinthine bureaucratic approval process and we know how long that can take.
This desire to centralise is so deeply ingrained in our administrative culture that even for the small amounts of money transferred to decentralised bodies like the SMC, the bureaucracy manages to impose rules that enable it to retain control over decision making. To explain, although SMCs have expenditure control over 5-6% of the education budget, the financial rules are designed such that these monies arrive in school bank accounts tied to very specific expenditure norms. So, if an SMC wants