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Can we make education less costly for the poor
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Since the start of school on September 1, local governments across China have been trumpeting new policies intended to insure that compulsory education is truly free. Rural children, in particular, will benefit from these policies, which limit the fees a school can charge.

According to an education official in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, the new policies will save each rural primary and middle school student between 940 and 1,485 yuan per semester. An average, three-person rural family in Hefei makes about 14,400 yuan a year, so this amounts to between 13 and 20 percent of their income.

This is a step in the right direction, to be sure, but we have a long way to go. Even government officials acknowledge that the new policies are aimed at addressing the inequality between rural and urban schools.

Everyone knows that city governments spend a lot of money on public schools, helping to underwrite the education of urban children. According to the same local official in Hefei, the city government spends between 944 and 1,415 yuan a year for each primary or junior middle school student.

Until recently, however, allocations for rural schools amounted to a few pennies. Many schools charge fees for books, exercise sheets, even electricity. As a result, rural families must spend more of their meager income on education than their urban neighbors.

Even within city school districts, inequality exists. Established public schools are still not fully open to children of migrant workers, simply because their residence cards are stamped "rural". Most of these children attend special schools that have yet to fully integrated into the local school district.

While local officials hail the new policies, rural families continue to pay a disproportionate amount for their children's education.

Many rural governments are still reluctant to spend money on education. In Chengcheng county, Shaanxi province, some students must bring a desk and chair to school, because the county does not have money in its budget for furniture. A local official was quoted as saying that "the students can have the chair and desk back when they graduate."

In fact, Chengcheng county seems to have spent almost nothing on education last year, as it poured 14 million yuan, or 15 percent of its revenue, into the county's new museum. The county is still celebrating the opening of its new museum, which local media say adds beauty and modernity to the county town.

Often rural parents must make extraordinary sacrifices in order to secure a better education for their children.

My family hires a migrant worker to help clean our apartment once a week. Recently, our helper failed to show up for three weeks in a row. When she did turn up on the fourth week, she told us she'd gone home to Anhui province to help her son get into a junior middle school in the county town.

In order to secure the placement, she had to spend 20,000 yuan to transfer her son's residential registration to the county town. If she hadn't come up with the money - equivalent to her wages for 250 eight-hour days - her son would not have been able to attend the county school.

I believe local governments should stop congratulating themselves for what they have achieved in improving education, and focus instead on mending the enormous gap between the rural and urban schools.

(China Daily September 10, 2009)

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