Now more than ever, Chinese families are pre-occupied with education. As I listen to my young colleagues talking during lunch hour, the problems seem endless.
Those with children in primary school complain how much homework their kids have, and how many extra-curricular courses they must take in order to get into a good middle school.
Parents of middle school students worry whether their children will do well enough to get into a good high school and a first-rate university.
But parents of toddlers must worry not only about finding a good kindergarten, but also how to pay for it. Including what the kindergartens call "donations", which are in fact a surcharge, the tuition can be thousands of yuan a month.
Wang Yufeng, a member of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, calculated the cost of sending a child to a kindergarten affiliated with a leading university in Beijing.
She was stunned. Including "donations", it came to some 40,000 yuan (US$5,840) a year, almost equal to the yearly tuition of four college students.
Worse, some kindergartens continue to rack their brains for new ways to extract money from parents. According to a Xi'an newspaper, one rural kindergarten charges parents 50 jiao (7 cents) for each Chinese character their child learns during the day.
The headmaster argued that the kindergarten has the right to ask for the surcharge because teaching Chinese characters to preschoolers is "special education" as defined in the national policies for preschool education.
But parents have good reasons to object. Some parents also teach their children to read, so why should kindergarten teachers take the credit and get paid for it? Will the kindergarten return the money if the toddlers forget the characters?
Whatever other problems preschool education in China may have, it should not be placing a significant economic burden on young couples, who in many cases are trying to hold down two jobs, raise a family, and help out their own parents.
It is no wonder that some 60 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 6 do not get any formal pre-school education. Blue collar workers cannot afford to send their children to kindergarten; even white collar workers find it difficult.
Education authorities should take responsibility for the state of pre-school education. They must develop effective programs to support the growth of pre-school education, and get a handle on the costs.
Until they do, kindergartens will remain more or less free to take the advantage of parents' willingness to pay for a good education for their children.
Early education is crucial to a child's development. Many young parents have opted to have only one child; understandably, they want the best for their child. A good kindergarten seems to give their child a good education and a good start in life.
But pre-school education is not just the parents' responsibility; it is important to the nation's future. As parents are always being told, don't let our kids get left behind at the starting line.
(China Daily March 12, 2009)