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Road Tragedy Exposes Gaping Holes in Education Funding
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On the morning of November 14, a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran into students jogging along a highway in Qinyuan County, north China's Shanxi Province, killing 20 students and one teacher.


The 31-year-old driver, Li Xiaobo, who had been driving continuously for almost eight hours when the accident happened, was arrested on November 18. The victims' families received a total of 4.32 million yuan (about US$532,000) in damages from the county government on November 20.


According to a November 16 People's Daily report, the very day the tragedy occurred, the Shanxi Provincial Department of Education issued emergency orders preventing students from jogging or doing their exercises on the streets and highways, and demanded safety inspections of all schools.


Nevertheless, these measures could not conceal the fact that financial support for compulsory education, particularly in impoverished areas, is sorely lacking.


The victims of the tragedy were from Qinyuan's No.2 Middle School, which has more than 1,000 students. The school's cramped little playground is inadequate for that many students, which is why many decide to jog on the nearby highway instead.


A student who was injured in the accident said: "Trucks often speed past us on the highway, which is very scary." 


Xinhua News Agency reported on November 17 that students jogging along highways is a common sight in the province. This is because many schools have limited space for sports activities. As a result, schools often stagger exercise lessons, or students take their exercise outside.


Playgrounds aren't the only things in inadequate supply. Tiny classrooms are also a problem. It is not unusual to find 90 students crammed into a classroom made for 45, according to the Xinhua report.


Early this year, some students in Jincheng City who had nowhere in school to play a game of basketball decided to take their game onto a frozen pond. The ice broke under their combined weight and several students drowned.


Shanxi Province has a population of 33.35 million people. A general survey shows that the space allocation for community sports is only 0.82 square meters per capita, less than neighboring provinces.


In the early 1990s, the Xinghualing Stadium in Taiyuan, which had hosted many national and provincial sports activities previously, was demolished without approval. Two towering commercial buildings took its place shortly after.


A new stadium was in the process of construction when municipal authorities commandeered 0.73 hectares of the uncompleted stadium, halting construction.


In September 2002, in the name of urban planning, the Xiaxian government issued an order to tear down the county's only floodlit basketball court, disregarding strong objection from various sports departments.


According to a China Youth Daily report on November 17, from 1989 to 2002, China's gross domestic product (GDP) soared from 1.69 trillion yuan to 10 trillion yuan, at an annual growth rate of 9.3 percent. However, current expenditure on education only amounts to about 3 percent of the skyrocketing GDP, below the world average of 5 percent.


The Business Times provided another set of figures. The Mass Sports Department of the General Administration of Sports, which is in charge of the national exercise or keep-fit campaign, is given 1.8 million yuan each year from the state, most of which is spent on administration. As a result, a majority of the country's community sports activities are self-funded.


According to a report published by Workers' Daily on November 17, in the underdeveloped western region in particular, most county-level governments cannot afford the expenditure that's necessarily incurred because of nine-year compulsory education. Lack of funding has resulted in higher drop-out rates and dilapidated school facilities.


In addition to reforming existing laws to provide more for educational investment, experts have suggested that governments at all levels include school reconstruction in their urban planning.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, November 25, 2005)

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