The new semester in March 2006 was different from others for Shang Zhibo in Manhai Elementary School of Manhai Village in Yunnan Province.
For the first time in his six-year teaching career, he announced to his fifth-grade class of 16 students that they no longer needed to pay their 80 yuan (US$10) school fees.
"I was told by the education bureau of Tongxin Township that the miscellaneous fees are exempted forever and the township government will always foot the bill from now on," said the 26-year-old Shang.
"This is really good news for me, for my students, and most importantly, for their parents."
The average annual income of Manhai villagers in southwest China's Yunnan Province is 800 yuan (US$100), mainly derived from vegetables and pigs.
At the end of 2005, the Chinese government announced it would invest 125.4 billion yuan (US$15.6 billion) over the next five years to foot the bill for compulsory education in rural areas, making sure every rural child has the opportunity for a free nine-year education.
Beijing invested 3.69 billion yuan (US$461.3 million) on schools in 12 western provinces including Yunnan and Sichuan to cover the school fees before the start of 2006 spring semester.
The plan is to extend the scheme to China's central and eastern areas, with 148 million primary and junior high school students receiving a free education in 2007. By 2008, all the fees for rural China's 400, 000 elementary and junior high schools will be shouldered by central and local governments. Local governments have been ordered to pay a minimum 92.8 billion yuan (US$11.6 billion) over the next five years, bringing the total spending to a potential 212.8 billion yuan (US$26.6 billion).
In addition, students from poor farming families in key counties included in the national poverty alleviation plan will be provided with free textbooks and exempted from paying miscellaneous fees. Boarding students will receive a living allowance.
"This policy is a milestone for China's century-old compulsory education, moving from an era where farmers support compulsory education into one where the government shoulders all the responsibility," said Zhou Ji, China's education minister.
Free and compulsory education is identified as a fundamental human right by the United Nations. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals stipulate that every school-age boy and girl complete a full course of primary education.
A report released by the Asian Development Bank states that of the world's 190 nations, more than 170 provide their children with free compulsory education. Included in the list are poor Asian countries like Laos, Cambodia and Nepal, whose per capita GDP amounts to just one third of China's.
However in China, children in poor rural areas often miss out on compulsory education due to the inability of local governments to fund public schooling and the massive income gap between eastern urban and western rural areas.
China's literacy has reached 98.9 percent in 2004, with a rate of 99.2 percent for men and 98.5 percent for women, an increase by 1.2 percent and 5.4 percent for men and women respectively compared with 1990, according to the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2005.
Yet 87 million people in China remain illiterate, 23 million of whom are youths and middle-aged individuals, according to the Ministry of Education's National Report on Education for All released in November 2005. About eight percent of the nation has not yet adopted the nine-year compulsory education system, and all of these areas are in the poorer and more remote western regions.
China's compulsory education consists of six years of primary school and three years of junior high school.
The dream of free compulsory education is far from being realized. Free education was first mandated in the 1986 Law on Compulsory Education for China's 289,000 primary schools and 4,266 junior high schools.
By 1998, it still was not free and the number of primary schools had doubled to handle 140 million students. The number of junior high schools had jumped 14-fold, handling 50 million students.
County and township governments continued to foot the education bill in China's vast rural areas. About 78 percent of education expenses were paid by township and county governments in 2002, according to a survey by the Development Research Center of the State Council. Funding from Beijing amounted to less than 2 percent. Poor rural governments passed on some of the expense to local farmers in "miscellaneous fees".
Of China's 193 million primary and high school students, 70 percent reside in rural areas. To educate a primary school student averages about 500 yuan (US$62.5) annually, according to an international analysis based on GDP and government spending on education. Each junior high school student needs 1,000 yuan (US$125).
To achieve the goal of a free education for these young people adds up to about 67.5 billion yuan (US$8.4 billion) per annum. China's 2 trillion yuan (US$250 billion) national tax revenue would suggest this figure is now very affordable, according to the Ministry of Finance.
A draft amendment to China's Law on Compulsory Education aiming to ensure stable funding for rural education was tabled to lawmakers at the annual National People's Congress session in March 2006. The amendment, which outlines the responsibilities of central and local governments in financing rural schools, is on the way to be finalized.
Shang Zhibo said he was happy to see his students' faces light up at the news of a free education. "To them, it is more than an exemption of 80 yuan (US$10). It brings them closer to the goal of a higher education and a more promising future," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency October 6, 2006)