TT, Calcutta, March 3: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today told the Bengal Assembly her next target would be cleaning up private schools that "charge so much".
Having tabled a bill to rein in private hospitals with a commission that will fix the charges for treatment and adjudicate on complaints of negligence, the chief minister said: "Now, I think there is a need to do something to control private schools. There are some private schools that are very good. But some of them charge so much in fees and donations. I think this needs to stop."
"I have nothing to say about those who can afford it. But I believe there has to be some control... without interfering in their internal administration," Mamata said.
She will sit with the private schools before drafting the policy. A meeting will be convened after the board exams are over. The drive will cover private higher education institutions.
Authorities at several reputable English-medium schools said they were worried that the government would try to interfere in their running. Some of them also complained that the chief minister had implied a parallel between private hospitals and private schools.
"How can the government determine our running costs? We charge students for the infrastructure we create, the facilities we provide and the reputation we have built over the years. It is unfair to suggest that we charge students for profit," said one principal.
Anglo-Indian schools run by the Christian missionaries wondered whether the state government could interfere in their operations. Article 30 of the Constitution gives minorities the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions.
The principal of an Anglo-Indian school said: "If the government really brings in legislation for private schools, we shall have to find out if it can be binding on institutions like ours. We shall also verify whether such legislation can be an infringement on our minority rights."
There are two categories of private English-medium schools in Bengal, the Christian missionary-run Anglo-Indian schools and non-Christian schools run by private bodies.
"We are pained that the government wants to treat us the same way as the hospitals," said the principal of a non-Christian private school.
Government sources promised that "the spirit of the legislation will be reformist, not punitive" like it would be for private hospitals.
The sources insisted that the chief minister's announcement in the Assembly did not imply the legislation would be a knee-jerk reaction. They promised a "well-thought-out initiative", likely to be rolled out in three to six months.
"A strong feature of the new drive will be checks on schools selling seats. Some reputable schools are already under the scanner of the government," said a Trinamul leader.
A woman was arrested last year for selling seats at private schools for anything between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 15 lakh. She had allegedly wangled seats for several hundred children.
Many believe the racket could not have operated without the connivance of some insiders at the schools but the police probe did not go that far.
It is not yet clear whether the government would try to control the schools through a new law or through guidelines that the schools would be expected to follow.
In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government has passed two legislative measures to regulate the fee structure at private schools. The bills are awaiting the lieutenant governor's approval.
A principal in Calcutta said: "We don't mind if the government draws up a new set of guidelines to ensure that every private school offers quality education. But it's a matter of serious concern if a regulatory commission like the model introduced to control private hospitals is set up for the schools and it tries to decide the fees we charge."