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Finding Balance: Meeting the Needs of Migrant Kids

"Look! Grandpa Wen gave it to me." Flourishing his little schoolbag, Yan Tianci is still thrilled with the present handed to him by Premier Wen Jiabao half a month ago.

Tianci is in the second grade at Xingzhi Experimental School for Transient
Students in Beijing's Haidian District. On May 29, 110 of the students were invited to celebrate International Children's Day with the kindergarten class of a school for kids of government officials. Premier Wen Jiabao and Mayor Wang Qishan were among the leaders who attended the event.

Xingzhi Experimental School was established in 1994 and currently has a total of 2,790 transient students. The increasing "floating" population in Beijing and other big cities has led to the establishment of growing numbers of private schools catering to migrant workers' kids. At present, some 50,000 of the 240,000 school-aged transient children in Beijing attend one of 280 schools for migrant children. Fewer than 10 of them are licensed, and local education departments are caught on the horns of a dilemma as to what to do about them.

Transient students: normal kids in a special situation

The migrant workers think the schools help a lot. Paying for their children to study in public schools has long been a luxury far beyond the means of most. That problem is being resolved in accordance with a directive of the State Council issued last September, which requires the reduction and eventual cancellation of extra tuition fees for non-resident children. But there are other considerations as well.

Many migrant-worker parents fear that their children might be looked down upon by the urban students. Everyone has a strong need to belong to a group or a community, but the transient children may have trouble forming relationships in schools where the other kids have often known each other for years. In a migrant-operated school, at least all the children have similar lifestyles, although they may have come from different parts of the country.

Some migrant farm workers also point out that many public schools have long, involved registration procedures that are highly impractical for families that must move frequently.

But the urban public schools and education departments want the migrant children. The one-child policy has led to a steady decline in student populations and public schools are feeling the loss. Private schools siphon away potential sources of tuition.

On the other hand, many of the private schools are no more than moneymaking machines for their owners. They lack qualified teachers, equipment and other facilities; and all they really have to offer is low tuition.

To resolve the problem, departments of education nationwide have initiated extensive rectification campaigns against illegally operated private schools. But therein lies the conundrum: simple closure of the schools may leave the migrant kids who were attending them with no place to study at all.

Migrant workers: Nowhere to go

Liu was a farmer in Jiangsu Province. He came to Beijing to earn more money and now sells vegetables at a market in Changping District. Liu's son and several other migrant children have been attending Zhenxing Elementary School, located near the market. When he heard that the city would start a cleanup campaign targeting illegally operated schools, Liu said, "I have no idea what to do if the school is closed. My son's grandparents took care of him before we came to Beijing, but they are in poor health." No one had the time or ability to see to the boy's studies.

Liu's story is very common. A survey of ten migrant families by the China Economic Times indicates that nine of the families sent their children to schools for transients. Most of them believed the closure of these schools would "greatly affect" the children's studies.

School operators: Not in it for the money

Wang Zhenchao is the headmaster of Zhenxing Elementary School. He and his wife came to Beijing from Zhangjiakou, a smaller city in Hebei Province. He says they make almost no profit on the school.

More than 300 students are currently enrolled in Wang's school. The tuition is US$54.40 per semester, and many families who have two kids are allowed to pay only US$48.30 per child. Several students attend for free because of family hardships. The school's annual income from tuition is US$28,996. In addition to the US$8,457 Wang pays to rent the classrooms, he has to pay US$15,706 for the teachers, drivers, administrative staff and other office expenditures. The couple earns about US$4,832 annually, or about US$200 per month each for Wang and his wife.

Education departments: Beset by problems

The Tongzhou District Educational Committee Development Planning Section has just begun trying to straighten out the situation. They had originally hoped to assemble all the migrant students in one public school, but that has proved far easier said than done.

The migrant-operated schools are obviously reluctant to give up the transient students, since it is their business.

More importantly for the students, the private schools generally do not use the same textbooks that local public schools use. Transferring will disrupt the continuity of the children's studies.

And significant to both parents and children, most private schools for transient children provide transportation between home and school, a service that public schools do not offer.

The regulations now being enforced to rectify the private schools are quite demanding. For example, they require legal representative to have local permanent residence registration. The school must procure US$60,400 to US$120,800 in registration funds, and it must provide the children with a playground that includes a 200-meter track.

Cui Chuanyi, a researcher at the State Council Development and Research Center Rural Economic Research Department, said that private schools for transient students must be regulated, but some of the existing standards are unrealistic. Cui added, "The average school for immigrant students cannot meet the requirements."

Central government: Assistance, not elimination

The State Council directive issued in September 2003 is intended to resolve these thorny issues. It requires that equal treatment be extended to all students, which means canceling additional fees for non-residents. It also calls for support to be given to the private schools for migrants. Simply and non-selectively closing them down is prohibited. Local governments are urged to establish special educational funds for migrant workers' children.

Zhao Shukai, a researcher with the State Council Development and Research Center, inspected 114 schools for transient students in Beijing. Zhao believes that the separation of transients from residents is a form of social divisiveness that will have a future impact on society and the economy.

"The existence of schools for transient students is reasonable as China deepens its urbanization policy," said Professor Shi Bonian, of the China Youth College for Political Sciences. Help should come from all walks of life and the government should also provide support by offering classrooms, teaching staff and equipment, he added. Shi himself has offered training at Beijng's Capital Normal University for teachers of transient students.

Shi said, "Now that they have been recognized, they must be standardized as well. We need audit and supervision authorities to ensure that they are not seeking excessive profit."

Fu Mingzhi, the Young Pioneers counselor at the Xingzhi Experimental School for Transient Students, thinks back to the day that little Yan Tianci got his schoolbag from "Grandpa" Wen Jiabao.

"It was charming to have the migrant children invited to celebrate their holiday with the local kids in Beijing. But we didn't expect that the event would draw attention from the top leaders."

Governments at all levels have recognized the existence of the schools and the needs of the children. Initial moves toward resolving the issues in the way that best helps the children may be tentative or fumbling at this early stage, but the solution will be found.

(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, June 23, 2004)

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