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When will all schools be equal?
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Sales of existing homes are booming in China. In Beijing alone, some 100,000 units have been sold already this year, double the number in all of 2008.

Elsewhere in China, from Harbin in the north to Shenzhen in the south, the market for existing homes is so bullish that even higher prices have not dampened buyers' enthusiasm.

When will all schools be equal?

The most desirable units, it turns out, are those near the best elementary and middle schools.

Existing homes near desirable schools are often the most expensive. Consider, for example, the Shijicheng residential area in the northwestern part of downtown Beijing. Housing there sells for around 17,000 yuan ($2,489) per sq m. Even though the area is close to the Fourth Ring Road, families want to settle there in order to be near the primary school attached to Renmin University.

To put that in context, the cost of one square meter of living space in this area is more than the average person can save in five months. Prices for housing near the Shijia and Jingshan primary schools in the heart of Beijing are even higher. Units there are priced at 20,000 yuan ($2,928) per sq m or even more.

Still, many people are willing to pay a premium and live in an aging, two-bedroom flat, rather than in a new three-bedroom apartment further from the center of the city, in order to be near good schools. The same is true in almost every city in China.

This is not a new story. More than 2,370 years ago, one mother famously moved three times in order to provide the best environment for her son.

Mensius, who lived between 372 and 289 BC, was one of the great educators and thinkers in Chinese history. His family was not well off, and his father died when he was only three years old.

After her husband died, Mensius' mother, Zou Shi, moved to a house near a cemetery, but soon found that little Mensius was imitating the people in funeral processions.

Fearing that the environment was not good for her son, she moved again, this time to a house near a marketplace. Before long, she saw Mensius mimicking peddlers as they hawked their wares.

Again Zou Shi made a move, finally settling down in a house close to a school, where Mensius could watch scholars go in and out and overhear the classical texts they were reciting.

It's the same story all over the world.

Young couples often move out of American cities like New York and San Francisco once their children reach school age, looking for better schools in the suburbs. Those who continue to live in the city pay top dollar for housing in the best school districts. In Silicon Valley, I know some recent Chinese immigrants who have made good schools their top priority when looking for housing.

You can't blame parents for trying to get their children into the best schools. Unfortunately, this universal desire points up a universal truth: not all public schools are created equal.

The best schools often attract the best teachers, draw generous donations from institutions and parents, and are able to equip their classrooms with the best equipment.

The top primary and middle schools in Beijing even have their own full-size swimming pools and gymnasiums. In contrast, many other schools do not even have a decent sports ground, let alone sophisticated teaching equipment.

Government education bureaus should confront this inequity and seek to improve mediocre schools. Elite schools not only skew the housing market; they exacerbate the growing divide between rich and poor.

Better teachers and improved facilities will make sure that a future Mensius gets the best possible education, no matter where his mother happens to live.

(China Daily July 2, 2009)

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