China's nine-year compulsory education system deserves applause if we consider the fact that it has been run with chronic funding shortages.
Official figures point to a 92 per cent attendance rate of compulsory education nationwide. Considering the vast country with unbalanced economic and social development, we may call it a great success.
This ostensible achievement, however, should not blind our eyes to the more deep-rooted problem of underfunding.
Legislators are soliciting opinions from the public for the revision of the law on compulsory education. The core issue under discussion is just how to make sure enough funds be pooled to make up for the shortage.
People are not divided on whether we should increase compulsory education spending. They cannot find tenable arguments against it.
In 2003, the country invested 136.5 billion yuan (US$16.9 billion) in compulsory education, 47.6 billion yuan (US$5.87 billion) short of demand.
Meanwhile, the country's fiscal spending on education accounted for 3.28 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2003, significantly lower than world average of 4 per cent.
Last year, China's GDP was 13.65 trillion yuan (US$1.68 trillion). If the education spending ratio could reach 4 per cent, an additional 98.28 billion yuan (US$12.1 billion), or two times the current gap in compulsory education, would become available.
However, increasing spending on compulsory education, while remaining on our wish list, can not become a reality if there is no enforceable law to guarantee it. Volatile promises are not what we can lay our trust in.
The laconic compulsory education law currently in force has vague stipulations that government at all levels shall guarantee the budget. It stops short of clarifying what happens if it is not guaranteed, and who should be held responsible for any failure.
One of the major tasks of the revised law should be to clear up the grey areas.
Whether the new version will become more binding and applicable in this respect will decide not only the efficacy of the law, but, in a sense, the future of China's basic education a cause upon which the nation's hopes hinge.
At present, governments at the county and township levels shoulder the bulk of the burden, or about 80 per cent, according to official surveys. The central and provincial governments are yet to play a bigger role in giving substantial fiscal support for compulsory education.
Since 1994, when China launched reform in the system of fiscal revenue allocation between central and local governments, the central coffers have had the better part of the national revenues.
And starting from 2003, the country began to spread a policy across the nation to scrap agricultural taxes and other rural fees, a move that has further weakened grass-roots governments' revenue ability to develop education.
The county- and township-level governments have shouldered a burden that is disproportionate to their fiscal strength.
Given the obvious gap, the revised law needs to stipulate clearer terms on the exact responsibilities and liabilities of central and provincial governments on developing compulsory education.
Fiscal resources are always limited and policymakers have to balance fiscal spending between various causes. But it is justified to increase investment in the underfed compulsory education system.
It is not only because we have not paid enough. Without high-calibre human resources, our development will become unsustainable.
(China Daily August 22, 2005)