State is free to act against schools flouting fee law: HC

MUMBAI: The Bombay high court has put some heat on school managements and the state government to implement Maharashtra’s law on education fee regulation. A bench of Justices BR Gavai and Bharati Dangre, while hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the law, clarified that the education department can initiate action against school managements which refuse to follow its provisions. The 2014 law sets out how any increase in school fees must be routed through the executive committee (EC) of the parent-teacher association (PTA) concerned.
Under the Maharashtra Educational Institute (Regulation of Fees) Act, 2011, the state is empowered to direct any school to comply with its provisions. In 2015, a parent, Prasad Viswanathan, along with others, had moved court to ensure implementation of the law to keep a check on escalating school fees. This was after some parents from a Chembur school had approached the HC when the school increased fees without taking the PTA EC’s approval as mandated by the Act. They had asked the school to refund the excess fees, but the school had declined. In 2016, a clutch of minority schools like Ryan International, St Joseph and St Xavier’s moved court to challenge the Act’s validity.
When the parents’ and the schools’ petitions came up for collective hearing last month, Viswanathan’s counsel Girish Godbole said that since the law’s constitutional validity had not been struck down, the schools must implement it and the state must ensure that this is done. Ryan’s counsel Niteen Pradhan argued that the law did not apply to the school and other minority educational institutions as the state cannot have any control over their autonomy to fix fees.
Advocate general (AG) Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, who the HC had directed to clarify the law, said that the Act was valid. “There is always presumption of validity of an Act. So, at this stage, the fee law is binding on all managements, and the state will act as if school managements are found in violation of the law’s provisions,” Kumbhakoni said.
The AG said the Act merely provided for a regulatory mechanism and hence would apply to all. “(Schools’) minority status can in no manner empower them to charge fees in an unregulated manner,” he said.
The parents’ grievance was that due to pendency of the petitions, the schools were not implementing the law and state authorities were not taking action.
In a brief order, the HC said, “We clarify that since there are no interim orders in any of the petitions… pendency would not come in the way of (the education department) to take steps against schools for not following the fee law.”
TIMES VIEW: The court's ruling is intended to prod the government into action in a sector where it has chosen to steer clear of involvement. One of the great mysteries of the education system is the state's reluctance to rein in profiteering by school chains despite repeated complaints by parents. These are players who, under the garb of providing ‘quality’ education, constantly hike their fees. But their standards are no better or worse than those of legacy institutions which charge less and even pay better salaries to their teachers.