NEW DELHI // The Supreme Court last week upheld India's Right to Education Act, a ruling that some private-school operators said would hurt them financially and discourage others from opening new schools.
The act, passed in 2009, requires that every child between age 6 and 14 attend school and that their education be free.
Private school administrators challenged the law as unconstitutional. They said the law would cost them money and infringed on the right of a private business to operate independently.
The law requires that both public and private schools reserve 25 per cent of first-grade places for children from poor families. The government would reimburse the cost of enrolling every such child, but only to the amount that a government school would have charged as fees for the same child.
Since private school fees are almost always higher than government school fees, private school administrators worried that the reimbursement rate would be insufficient.
The Supreme Court ruled that the law did not apply to boarding schools or to private schools that were entirely funded by institutions set up by linguistic minorities or religious minorities.
The effect of the mandate, said Urmila Sarkar, the education chief for Unicef India, would be "to ensure inclusion and equity, to bring children from different economic and caste and religious backgrounds together".
According to the NGO Child Relief and You, less than half of Indian children between 6 and 14 attend school. Between 2010 and last year, Unicef reported that roughly 190 million children in that age group were enrolled in school. In total, about 220 million children were enrolled in Indian schools across all age groups.
Damodar Goyal, the president of the Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan, which challenged the law, said he was disappointed by the ruling.
"India needs more schools, but this ruling will now discourage people from opening more private schools. Earlier, two groups had approached me on the advisability of setting up private schools, but now both have withdrawn their interest."
Mr Goyal said that only a small number of schools in India were private, non-minority schools. The emphasis, he said, should be on improving India's government schools, which form the clear majority of the country's schools.
To implement the law, the government must hire another 1.2 million teachers but it has not yet provided the money for those salaries and other needs.
In the government's last two annual budgets, the human resource development ministry received only half of the roughly 432 billion rupees (Dh30.5bn) that it required each year.
The government estimated it will need 2.23 trillion rupees to meet its obligations under the education act between 2010 and 2014. This cost would rise further once the government began reimbursing private schools for the poor students they enroll.
Ms Sarkar agreed Indian government schools required more investment and attention. But the real issue with Indian schools, she said, was not facilities but "the quality of learning".
"That's where investment needs to go: to what's happening inside the classroom and what the kids are actually learning."
Jayanthi Nair, the principal of Hari Sri Vidya Nidhi, a 1,500-pupil private school in the town of Thrissur in Kerala, said that nobody could argue with the act's aims. "Every single child in this country should get an education."
But she worried that a private school like hers, which charges a fee of roughly 700 rupees (Dh50) per month or less depending on the student's age, would be unable to afford the financial burden of the act.
"The government will reimburse the fees of those underprivileged children [under the 25 per cent quota] only equivalent to what a government school charges as fees," she said. "The difference will have to be borne by us."
Ms Sarkar said the financial considerations of private schools should not enter into the debate.
"If the country has decided to have legislation to educate the child, you're basically saying that private schools have a responsibility that this provision is met," she said.
Ms Nair said private schools in India existed across a wide spectrum, with schools like hers at one end and more expensive and more profit-minded schools at the other end.
"And obviously the government can't make different rules for different schools - I realise that," she said. "But in terms of diversity, we already have a mixed bag. We have children of doctors and businessmen studying with children of autorickshaw drivers. We're already doing that."