09/19/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Let Eklavya Into Our Schools

In the Mahabharata, the young tribal prince Eklavya aspires to study archery in the gurukul of Dronacharya, the most reputed teacher of that era. Despite his precocious abilities, he is rejected because of his low caste.

In a documentary on manual scavenging, Neerottam (pseudonym) recollects her experience of dropping out from school: "I used to sit in the front row. Then my classmates did not want me to sit next to them. So the teacher asked me to move to the last row. I went for some days. Then I stopped." Slowly Neerotam's eyes well up with tears and she whispers: "I wanted to become a nurse or a teacher."

While Eklavya's struggle to reach school is a myth, Neerottam's reality isn't. India's underprivileged children still face barriers to education today. Policies like Right to Education (RTE) Clause 12, which reserves 25 percent of the class in private schools to "scholarship seats", can enable social inclusion and remove these barriers.

Recent studies have established that learning levels are declining in our schools and that the achievement gap is widening across social groups. Private schools are performing marginally better than government schools and perceived to be of better quality. Whether a child goes to private school, however, depends strongly on family income. According to India Human Development Survey 2005, a nationally representative household survey, high-income families are 60 percent more likely to attend private schools than low-income families.

In response to these challenges, Indian Parliament passed the RTE in 2009, which included Clause 12, mandating that "government recognized non-minority private schools" provide at least 25 percent of the seats in their entering class for "children belonging to the weaker sections and disadvantaged groups in the neighborhood."

The bold attempt for social inclusion has sharply divided the public opinion. While some believe it is unrealistic to expect private schools to foster social inclusion, others believe that it is a gateway of opportunities and equality for the poor.

Does designing classrooms as a microcosm of our society lead to improved social inclusion? There is room for optimism.

Since 2007, schools receiving land from Delhi government had to open 20 percent of their seats to children from economically weaker sections (EWS). Using this lottery allocation, Gautam Rao from University of California studied the impact of social inclusion on students from high-income families. Privileged students in scholarship schools were found to be more likely to volunteer for a social organization and more likely to include EWS children (of the same ability) in their sports teams than were privileged students in non-scholarship schools.

In another randomized longitudinal study conducted in 180 villages across 5 districts in Andhra Pradesh, students who received the scholarship to attend a private school were interviewed on different aspects of "social capital", a well-used measure by social scientists. The scholarship students who stayed through the five-year program were compared with those who dropped out of the program within the first few years. Field interviews reflected a significant difference in the ability of scholarship students to build social capital at three different levels.

At an individual level, scholarship students were better able to forge friendships across social barriers like caste, religion and class. Such "bridging social capital", is thought to be a key for getting ahead in life. Scholarship children also had stronger perceptions of inclusion at the school level. They were better able to overcome their initial fear of attending a private school and were recognized more often as leaders by their peers either in the classroom or during play.

At the community level, scholarship students had better informational awareness about civic institutions like Gram Sabha, Post office, Anganwadi, Ration depot, bank and government programs like NREGA and RTI in their village. Their reflections about a village's strengths and problems showed a deeper level of civic engagement compared to their peers who dropped out of the program.

Social inclusion benefits might not convince hardline critics of the Clause 12. The learning gains on average for scholarship children in comparison with their government school peers were at best modest and mostly insignificant. More importantly, the policy still doesn't solve the problem of our ailing public schools and imposes a huge challenge of adaptation for the private schools.

The 10 percent increase in private school admissions every year, however, leads to the possibility for half of our children being in private schools by 2017. Given this trend, the Supreme Court's mandate in April 2012 becomes a necessary chance to reverse the rich-poor private schooling divide.

Clause 12 is a great opportunity to carry forward the legacy of the constitution our grandparents gave us. Integrating Eklavya's and Neerottam's into our schools can be the legacy of our generation.

Let's embrace Clause 12. It is both worth it and will make our children proud.