Schools struggle as pending RTE reimbursements run into crores

As the process for admissions under RTE have begun, schools are staring at an ever growing figure of reimbursements awaited from the government.

With each passing year, the government owes private schools the reimbursements for students taken in free of cost under the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The amount has racked up to around a crore for some schools, with several school associations alleging Rs 1,200 crore is due in total.

“Last year, we received the RTE reimbursement for the academic years 2016-17 and 2017-18,” says Anushka Pradhan, head of primary at Gyan Kendra school in Andheri. The school takes in 52 new students from financially and socially weaker backgrounds with the promise of a free education till the eighth grade every year: the entire 25% quota that private unaided schools are meant to reserve under the RTE Act, 2009. The government, in turn, is supposed to reimburse the schools for the fees of these students. “But after that, we haven’t received anything. We’re owed almost Rs 88 lakh.”

Other schools are in similar situations, staring at years’ worth of unpaid RTE reimbursements.

A trustee of the St. Anthony’s Convent Higher Secondary School in Badlapur says they’ve received two RTE reimbursements, of Rs 5 lakh and 4 lakh respectively. Over Rs 89 lakh still remains, accumulated over 6 years.

Repercussions on education

“This year’s fees will be paid in the middle of next year, but there’s no exact timeline,” says Mohammed Rafique Siddiqui, principal and chairman of the Holy Mother English School, Malad. The school located in slums catering to resident children. It is not the first choice for parents, resulting in many of the 25% reserved seats staying vacant until a year ago. This has changed in the current year, with 40 students enrolled under RTE in the school.

The fewer students and the low fees, Rs 400 per month, mean the backlog for Rafique’s school isn’t as large. Still, the lack of cash inflow hurts.

Read more: Why do so many seats reserved under the Right To Education (RTE) Act go vacant?

The government’s allocation for RTE

In the assembly’s winter session, the state education minister, Deepak Kesarkar, announced a Rs 200 crore provision for RTE reimbursements. The Central and state government split the contribution 60:40, with the amount per student reduced from Rs 17,600 to Rs 8,000 during the pandemic. There are around 9,000 RTE schools in the state. School associations complained that over Rs 1,200 crore is pending. It is unlikely that the amount will suffice.

Sharad Gosavi, director of primary education in the state, assures that the schools will get the reimbursement as and when the government approves the amount. “Rs 84 crore has already been distributed. The remining Rs 116 crore will come in a few days, and it will then be distributed to the districts,” he says.

“Schools also have to be prompt in sending the proposals for the RTE reimbursement. Some districts are lagging in this regard,” he adds. Post the payment to the schools, the central government reimburses the state government 60% of the expenses.

Aslam Shaikh, member of the RTE verification committee, alleges that the non-repayment of the RTE reimbursement fees leads to schools not taking RTE students, either by not registering or by applying for minority status. Of the 674 unrecognised schools in the state, 239 are in Mumbai. This runs the risk of reducing the pool of seats RTE students can choose from.

Sharad denies this is happening, as the RTE Act mandates registration regardless of the fee payment. This year, already 8,000 schools have registered for RTE. As for changing to being a minority school, he replies, the checks and balances in the process ensure only those that meet the criteria are able to make the change.

“The most important thing is that the school does not distinguish or discriminate between the regular and RTE students,” says Anushka, adding that they have parents on the waiting list requesting a place in their school. This is no mystery, as the number of applicants for seats under RTE is more than double the number of seats available.

A graph of seats and admissions under RTE
The number of reserved RTE seats, applicants and students eventually admitted in them over the years. Notice how the number of seats reserved under RTE have slipped.

Ways of coping

“As this is related to the government, delays are always expected and accepted,” says Rafique. “We will get the fees, but it will take time.” Keeping the delays in mind, schools have had to find ways to deal with the shortage of capital.

Rafique’s school, for instance, uses the eventual reimbursement for development and infrastructure needs instead of scheduling the salaries of teachers from it. “We have the amount in the back of our minds as preserved with the government, and when we get it, we will use it for other purposes.”

Gyan Kendra school too makes do with the fees they receive from other students. In some cases, however, as in St Anthony’s, the fees for other students are hiked to make up for the amount. They are also helped from clubs and donations.

In absence of any clarity regarding the RTE reimbursements, schools authorities are looking at another academic year without adequate funds.

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