Private vs public interests

December 15, 2013

Private vs public interests

The only reason for existence of public policies is to provide necessary public services to the public in the best possible manner. To provide public services, the governments frequently engage the providers of goods and services in the private sector. There is nothing wrong with it as long as the private interests of the providers are not allowed to trump the public interest. Usually the private providers have an incentive to simply sell their product. But the governments must do everything to get the best out of the private sector while also protecting the public interest.

This is where public debate on policy ideas becomes important as it can help the governments refine and improve its ideas before they are adopted as policies.

 Considering the dismal state of physical infrastructure of the schools in Punjab, it is fair to ask as to why the millions planned to being spent on buying the tablets are not allocated to improving the dismal condition of the schools. 

The case of impending distribution of tablets, now called smart school systems, in Punjab is one such situation. In an earlier article, I had expressed some concerns about the Punjab government’s plans to distribute android tablets to all children. There is no evidence, I argued, that tablets increase learning gains. They are also not a cost effective replacement of the textbooks. Children can easily damage them. However, unlike the inexpensive paperback textbooks their repair or replacement can be very expensive. There is a risk, therefore, that children would be left worse off after they were given the tablets than they are now with the bag full of textbooks.

Considering the dismal state of physical infrastructure of the schools in Punjab, it is fair to ask as to why the millions planned to being spent on buying the tablets are not allocated to improving the dismal condition of the schools. Imagine schools that need clean drinking water and electricity being given android tablets instead. But this is not the only problem. It goes without saying that when tablets begin to damage and crash, poor teachers and headmasters will be scapegoated for showing lack of responsibility and not taking care of these ‘public assets’. After all, who will be made responsible for ensuring that children keep their tablets in good order, if not teachers?

When one looks at stories of the use of tablets in schools from other countries the picture that emerges is anything but pretty. There is plenty of evidence out there of the tablet deals resulting in enormous wastage of public funds and the only entity to benefit from these schemes has been the private manufacturers and providers of tablets. As one of the journalists investigating the one-to-one tablet programmes in American schools puts it, "The devil is in the details, and tablet programme details are proving to be very devilish indeed".

A certain county in the state of North Carolina decided to get 20,000 tablets for some 73,000 students. However, the tablet programme was put on a pause soon after it started -- some 10 per cent of all the tablets were broken by children no sooner than they landed in the schools. Battery of one tablet overheated and melted amplifying the concerns about the safety of their use in schools. The programme was suspended and tablets pulled out from the schools. A similar program in Texas has also run into snags.

In Los Angeles, the attempts of the LAUSD school superintendent -- counter part of our EDOs -- to provide iPads to all students are met with fierce resistance from the critics. Strong objections are being raised in the media and by concerned public commentators on education on these plans. The critics are concerned as to why LAUSD is buying such expensive tablets when the district is unable to pay salaries to its teachers and is forced to cut several other educational programmes.

A prominent historian of education Diane Ravitch wrote about the iPad scheme on her blog in these words: "Some corporations will make a lot of money, especially Apple and Pearson. And meanwhile, many Los Angeles students will be in overcrowded classrooms and will not get any arts programmes because of budget cuts…No one has explained where the money will come from to pay for the next round of iPads in three or four years."

To cut the long story short, there are valid concerns that plans to push tablets into the schools serve the interests of the tech corporations a lot more than the hapless children. In the absence of evidence of educational effectiveness of tablets, it is arguably only the interest of corporations that is masquerading as interest of the schools and learners in the justifications offered in favour of the plan.

Pakistan should learn from these experiences before launching similar programmes. The onus is on the government of Punjab to convince the public that its plans to give every child a tablet will enhance the quality of education? The government should make a strong evidence based case that getting tablets in the hands of children will benefit learning outcomes in a sustained manner. Public should also know where the money will come from. It may not be a good idea to spend the money kept earlier for the upkeep and maintenance or upgrading of schools to buy tablets?

I would like to believe in the sincerity of the government of Punjab’s attempts to fix education. But it would do well to immediately commission ex ante analyses of these plans for the "smart school system". Government should not let the big corporations rush it into buying the tablets.

The way to go is a carefully phased and stepped process of improving the whole school. The standards of provisions for the schools need to be clearly established if this has not already been done. The priorities need to be drawn and financially viable plans put in place for the whole school improvement of all schools. The way to go is not tablet for each child but a high quality school for each child. An alternative to giving each child a tablet can be to provide each teacher with a tablet. Such tablets could come loaded with lesson plans and other ideas. They could also be loaded with video lessons from such entities as Khan Academy to help teachers make up for their subject knowledge deficiencies.

I remember Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif mentioning Danish Schools in one of his election speeches. He said that once in government, his party would make a Danish School available to each child. Danish Schools were also criticised for being expensive and ultimately unsustainable. But no one faulted them for their ability to provide a healthy learning environment to the students.

It may not be possible to make good on the election promise of providing Danish School to each child in Pakistan. However, the government could at least try to improve the plight of existing schools instead of starting a controversial scheme that could potentially leave the schools in the same situation while further deepening the pockets of some tech corporations.

There are always multiple policy ideas out there looking for an opportunity window and not all of them are viable. Policy entrepreneurs, who are usually individuals and groups with a single idea to sell, are always waiting for the opportunity window to open. The opportunity window for a particular idea, in this case smart school systems, may have opened due to any number of reasons. But before it is exploited, the policy entrepreneurs and Punjab government must justify their choices. The pressure for such justification must come from the civil society and public intellectuals.

Not in the too distant future, when the tablets will have been distributed, and the concerns regarding them emerge in the media, the civil society campaigners will be criticising the government for yet another policy failure. The state and civil society have a mutual responsibility to not allow the private interests to trump public interest. If the government appears to lose its bearing, the civil society must help it rediscover it.

However, if we look around for the critical voices on these plans, we are not likely to find many so far. Private interests will always masquerade as public interests in the arena of education policy. They will also succeed in trumping the public interest if left unchallenged by those who take the protection of public interest as their raison d’etre.

The civil society has a critical role in this regard and must live up to it. It is time for the individuals and organisations with an understanding and concern for education to come forward and help the government by being its well-intentioned critics. The Punjab government on its part only stands to benefit from commissioning independent analysis and advice on its plans to set up the smart school system. 

Private vs public interests