The gap between China's urban and rural compulsory education systems can be attributed to an unequal allocation of resources.
Educational inequality is systematic of China's dual social structure, as is the two-speed development of the social security network.
Urban residents enjoy housing and unemployment subsidies and other forms of social welfare, such as preferential medical, educational and transportation services, while in rural areas farmers have to take responsibility for their security and welfare.
With a low level of social provision, the school drop-out rate among poor rural children has long been very high.
With strong economic growth in recent years, the social security system has improved a lot, with some economically more developed provinces even implementing an unprecedented unified welfare system in urban and rural areas. The social security and assistance system has even been extended to remote rural and township areas.
But in most underdeveloped provinces, rural areas are a long way behind urban areas in terms of social services.
China's city-oriented education policies have caused and then aggravated urban-rural differences.
National public education has always been seriously underfunded. Many important indexes of educational spending have long been lower than the global average, and even lower than those of many other developing countries.
A large part of the central government's fiscal budget for education has flowed into higher education institutes, while local governments have become the primary investors in compulsory education. In the vast rural areas, this responsibility has come to weigh heavily on township budgets.
Given that most townships cannot provide enough cash for compulsory education, schools have deteriorated and defaulting on teachers' payments has become commonplace.
There are different pay scales for urban and rural teachers, leading many of the young and talented into urban areas, where they know they will receive better treatment.
The education gulf has already begun to threaten sustained and balanced economic, educational and social development.
To narrow the gap, the government must make some profound policy changes.
The country should adopt an equitable and modern educational approach and a scientific development perspective, while setting out a series of policy concepts for unified and balanced urban-rural development.
Inequality of opportunities is the root of extreme poverty in some rural regions.
The vast rural areas have not enjoyed the benefits of having a stable investment source, and so the misuse, embezzlement or misappropriation of funds have become part of everyday life.
We must have a law unambiguously regulating different educational investment standards for different regions with different economic development levels. Local governments that fail to meet such standards or misuse educational funds must be relentlessly punished.
A new compulsory educational system should be set up to clearly state the duties of the central and local governments. The central government's investment in compulsory education, especially in underdeveloped areas, should be increased.
Compulsory education should be free in the countryside, echoing many other nations.
To bring rural education quality in line with that in urban areas, a special fund should be established to encourage excellent teachers to devote themselves to working in rural areas.
Narrowing the urban-rural education gap does not mean slowing the speed of educational development in the cities. The government must offer the marginalized rural population the same educational rights as their urban counterparts.
(China Daily October 13, 2005)