School Choice and Implementation: Survey Evidence Across Indian States

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
Subject MatterSpecial Section on Politics & Society Between ElectionsSpecial Section Articles
Special Section Article
School Choice and Implementation:
Survey Evidence Across Indian
Srikrishna Ayyangar1, Sham N. Kashyap1,
Prateeti Prasad1 and Rishikesh B. S.1
Research on implementation of basic services points out that the upwardly mobile seem to be exiting
the public system for private alternatives, straining the capacity of the public system to serve the poor.
But is this national narrative representative of implementation across the various states in India?
Based on questions of school choice from a national survey, we argue that respondents’ choice of
public or private service seems to be affected by state-level patterns that are obscured by both individ-
ual background characteristics from below and the national narrative from above. We argue that back-
ground characteristics do explain current school choices but do not fully explain ideal school choices. If
ideal school choices are considered akin to the demand side of implementation, then our study shows
that both societal and state-level patterns matter as we identified certain underserved populations that
still aspire for public services, and who typically get obscured by national-level explanations.
School choice, public service delivery, implementation
Over the past few years, evidence-based policymaking has drawn much attention from policymakers in
India and around the world (Pal, 2019). The idea of evidence-based policymaking seems to focus on
questions of the type of interventions and field experiments to accurately estimate outcomes. However,
there is also a concurrent resurgence of interest around questions of implementation (Andrews, 2013).
Such implementation studies focus on state capacity to deliver public services where the question of the
choice of intervention is important but nevertheless secondary.
This article seeks to better understand questions of implementation through citizens’ choices around
the type of intervention. We rely on scholarship and data from the field of ‘school choice’ in the area of
education. We make two arguments. First, there is a sizeable section of India’s population that seeks to
Studies in Indian Politics
8(2) 170–185, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020963445
1 Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.
Corresponding author:
Srikrishna Ayyangar, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, Karnataka 560100, India.
Ayyangar et al. 171
move out of private schools and into public schools. Since they are being underserved by the private
system, they seem to be slipping through the cracks between the private and public systems—an imple-
mentation lacuna that the government should fill. Second, understanding implementation in India at the
national level tends to oversimplify questions that affect implementation as it obscures the vast variation
across and within India states.
The article has the following sections. The next section summarizes the literature on implementation
and on school choice in India. The third section provides some basic information about the data, sam-
pling, summary statistics and the results from the logistic regression. We point out that our data aligns
with the available evidence on actual school choice (the school to which children currently go) in India,
but explaining ideal school choice (the school to which parents would like to send their children) and the
gap between the two (actual vs. ideal) requires looking at state-level factors. The fourth section draws
our attention to some possible explanations at the subnational level. The fifth and final section provides
some conclusions.
Literature Survey
Extant studies on implementation of public services point to three salient features of state capacity in
India. The first can be characterized as a debate between interventions and institutions at the system
level, wherein some scholars would argue that well-understood interventions coupled with adequate
experimentation can overcome ‘plumbing’ problems (Duflo, 2017), while others would argue that well-
understood institutions can overcome contingencies that can influence the best understood interventions
(Andrews et al., 2015; Rodgers et al., 2020; Sandfort & Moulton, 2014). Second, it is well known that
subnational factors play a crucial role in service delivery, comparing cases across India over many dec-
ades (Jenkins, 2004; Kohli, 1987), though recent studies show that this intermediate space requires more
attention to be able to frame subsequent comparative studies (Tillin et al., 2015).
Third, frontline factors hold a key role in delivering services provided by state and private agencies.
Frontline workers develop discretionary heuristic strategies (Lipsky, 1980) and risk aversion behaviours
(Aiyar & Bhattacharya, 2016). Their behaviour is also historically shaped, socially embedded and carry
implicit biases, all of which put together can directly shape citizens’ preferences for services (Corbridge
et al., 2005). Improving frontline service delivery, hence, is a complex function of increasing the state–
society synergy through sandwich approaches (Rao et al., 2017), bureaucratic rationalization of pro-
grammes (Chand, 2006) and provision of a combination of high-powered and low-powered incentives
(Besley & Ghatak, 2007).
Finally, studies based on surveys of service delivery of utilities (electricity, water) and services (edu-
cation, health) overwhelmingly show that the access issue may have been overcome but the quality of
service is wanting (The World Bank, 2006). Second, state capacity for welfare may itself be flailing
because the upwardly mobile middle urban classes are opting out of public provisioning and migrating
to (or coping with) privately organized services, which consequently puts the state in a fiscal squeeze to
serve the underclass, especially because they simply cannot afford services that are not subsidized
(Pritchett, 2009).
From the aforementioned studies, we know that any national-level narrative around the implementa-
tion of public services is rather simplistic because analysis at such a level will necessarily remain parsi-
monious unless we attempt to break the narrative down into various intersectional contexts in which
service delivery is located. The kind of information we need to know now is more granular—which

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