In a step hailed by the general public as an important requirement for developing social equality, China is revising the 20-year-old Compulsory Education Law to narrow the educational disparity between rural and urban areas.
The draft amendments went on February 25 before the full meeting of the Standing Committee of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC). It is now deliberated at the ongoing sessions of the 10th National People's Congress and the 10th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
Currently China practices a nine-year compulsory education system -- six years in primary school and three years in junior middle school, involving 177 million registered students.
The draft amendments increase the number of articles from 18 to 95.
According to the March 9 issue of China Newsweek, two main issues have been addressed in the draft amendments. One is equalization of education, which means the country should abolish the policy of so-called "key class/key school" system and governments at all levels should equally allocate investment. The other is to establish a mechanism for guaranteeing the government investment. The draft amendments clearly define the duty of government as the chief investor in people's education.
According to a survey conducted by the Department of Rural Economy Research under the Development Research Center of State Council in some rural areas in 2001, the central government contributed only one-fiftieth of the total investment on compulsory education in those areas.
Education experts, Wang Shanmai and Yang Dongping, told China Newsweek that the budgetary appropriations from the central government account for only 11 percent of the national expenditure on compulsory education. Most of the funding is often collected by the local authorities. Regional disparity in economy has eventually resulted in differences in the opportunity and quality of education available to school age children.
In major cities across the country almost all school children are able to complete their nine-year studies but in rural areas it's a different story. Statistics from the Ministry of Education on February 25 show that dropout levels in rural primary schools accounted for 2.45 percent of the total number pupils in 2004 while the rate in rural junior middle school was 3.91 percent.
By the end of 2004 no public funds were assigned to primary schools in 163 counties and secondary schools in 142 counties. The operation and maintenance of the schools depended on miscellaneous sources.
During the First session of the 10th NPC in 2003, nearly 600 deputies jointly put forward a proposal on revising the Compulsory Education Law. It drew great attention from the NPC and as a result, the policy makers have quickened their steps in response.
Provinces including Guangdong, Hainan in east China began to implement, on a trial basis, a policy of "free compulsory education" in the second half of 2005, which means that parents need not to pay tuition fees for their children.
Nevertheless the crucial part of education investment is how to calculate/balance the level of investment between central and local governments. At the end of 2005, a national meeting on reforming the mechanism for guaranteeing the government investment in rural areas firstly announced the ratios between the central and local governments: 8:2 in the western part of the country, and 6:4 in the central areas. The ratio varies in eastern areas depending on local conditions.
In respect of the funds for repairing school buildings, the central and local finance share the responsibility equally in the west and central areas while the local governments in eastern areas shoulder the major responsibility.
For students troubled by a lack of funds in the west and central areas, the central government will pay all the fees, while the local governments in eastern areas assume the full responsibility in this regard.
Yet these methods are policies only, not laws
"These ratios are specific and fixed but situations often change. During the Fourth Session of the 10th NPC they will not be written into the amendments to the compulsory education law," Wang Xu, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, told China Newsweek.
Wu Xuanmei, a primary school teacher from Yixing in east China's Jiangsu Province, said: "China is now pursuing the establishment of a harmonious society. The unfairness in the educational sector is one of the biggest challenges.
"I hope the revised law will remind governments at all levels to pay close attention to the problems and take practical measures to narrow the educational gap between rural and urban schools," Wu said.
However, Wang Shanmai, education expert and professor of Beijing Normal University, thinks the obligation of government is still not clear enough. He said, "The minimum standards for running a school haven't been worked out. How will these ratios be agreed and implemented?"
(China.org.cn by Wang Ke, March 11, 2006)