Despite government efforts to promote equal rights in the nine-year compulsory education for all of China's children, migrant workers are still finding it difficult to get their children enrolled in urban school systems unless they can afford the exorbitant extra fees.
Indeed, education is not yet a given but "something bought" for his daughter, complains Sun Zhao, an employee at an auto parts shop in Beijing. Sun has had his daughter admitted by a public school in Beijing after paying the school a handsome amount of extra money called "a donation." And that's because the Suns are not registered permanent residents of the city.
Moving to the capital in 1998 from his native Shaanxi Province, Northwest China, Sun has to earn at least 50,000 yuan (US$6,040) a year to put his child through primary school and raise his family.
"These days no money means no education, although teachers might treat the children equally at school," Sun said.
Financial hardship has blocked the road to school for many children of migrant workers. Next door to the Suns live a migrant couple who make a living by running a family-style restaurant. "The business brings our family only 1,000 yuan (US$120) a month. We cannot afford to send our son to a public school here, which asks for a donation of 12,000 yuan (US$1,450)," says Lu Chaoguang, the wife. The couple live in a 12-square-metre rented room, the front of which functions as the restaurant.
The 30-year old mother says there is one alternative - enrolling her little boy in a school run by migrants like herself, which costs only 50 yuan (US$6) a semester. But having misgivings about the teaching quality of the school, she refuses to do so. "I would like my child to receive a good education in a State-run school here. But, since we can't afford that, we've sent our boy to a school in our hometown," Lu said.
For the children of migrant workers at issue is not just the difficulty of enrolment but the very right to education. "Asking migrant workers to pay extra schooling fees for their children is discrimination," said Han Jialing, a sociologist with the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.
Most migrant workers in cities are from rural areas and earn little. A survey of migrants in Beijing by Professor Han last year said that 20.2 percent of 31,000 migrant families surveyed live on 500 yuan (US$60) or so a month, 43.2 percent on 500-1,000 yuan (US$60-120). "This means public schools in Beijing are financially off limits for the children of migrant workers," she says.
Today, the number of migrant workers' children exceeds 240,000 in Beijing. About 400 unofficial schools run by social workers, volunteers and educators have in recent years sprung up throughout the city to fill a need. "But these schools are poorly equipped, in terms of both facilities and teaching resources," says an education authority in Beijing, estimating that 80,000 to 90,000 migrants' children now attend these schools.
"Without a good education, they will find it almost impossible to get decent jobs in the future," a spokesman said.
Government policy is changing, however. To open the city's school system for the children of migrant workers, the Beijing municipal government has recently urged public schools in the city to scrap "temporary school fees," usually a whopping 20,000 yuan (US$2,410), to ensure that these children receive at least nine years' compulsory education.
The Beijing Municipal Education Commission has specified that the children of migrant workers pay the same amount as urban pupils, a maximum of 267 yuan (US$32) for each semester at primary school and 355 yuan (US$42) for junior high school.
More gov't input needed
These are indeed good intentions. But the reality is usually different. Schools can always find ways to collect money, says Professor Han.
"Instead of temporary school fees or a 'donation,' schools may invent some other names for charges on admissions," she said.
China spends 2 percent of its GDP on education, which is a far cry from the internationally recommended 6 percent. The country now has 19.8 million migrant worker children under the age of 18. Nearly half of them cannot go to school and 9.3 percent of them drop out.
The central government adopted a policy in 2002 requiring local finance departments to provide funds for the education of these children and give financial support to schools with a big proportion of them. During the 2000-02 period, the Beijing municipal government earmarked an extra 5 million yuan (US$602,410) to districts with a concentration of migrant workers. This year it has allocated another 35 million yuan (US$4.2 million) to help the children attend school.
To some extent, according to one high school principal, the central government is shifting financial responsibility to local governments, which are in turn shifting it to schools.
That's where problems arise, says Professor Han. "When schools accepting migrant workers' children do not receive enough funds from the government, some of them have to ask the students for money," she says.
Lin Bao, a researcher with the Institute of Population and Labour Economics, says that although the central government has worked out policies to lower the threshold for the enrolment of migrant workers' children, there are no guidelines on how many children should or must enroll in each school.
The situation for migrant worker children already enrolled in high school is just as hard. They have to go back to their hometowns to finish high school if they want to go to college. They cannot take college entrance exams at a place where they don't have permanent residence permits.
And there are other complications. For example, Beijing uses textbooks that are different from ones used in the rest of the country. "That's another reason few schools are willing to admit children of migrant workers," Professor Lin says.
Because they are barred from taking college entrance examinations, their schools will inevitably have lower rates of graduates entering institutions of higher learning, in turn damaging their reputation, Lin says. "That's why urban schools raise the enrolment threshold for these pupils by charging exorbitant fees," he says.
Some lofty-minded educators in Beijing are trying to turn their public schools into schools for migrant children only. "These children can go to these schools and are free to transfer to others any time. The local finance department will give cash according to the size of the enrolment," says a government official in Beijing's Haidian District, in China's "Silicon Valley," where migrants make up almost 50 percent of the population.
The unofficial schools will get help from district governments to improve their basic conditions, including dismantling unsafe school buildings and adding bigger classrooms.
But the children cannot wait. Amending the old system should be kept separate from children's education, according to a spokesman at the Beijing-based Rural Development Institute. "The central government should provide more money for the education of migrant workers' children and take the most responsibility," he says.
Professor Lin believes the issue concerns the government's long-term commitment to public service. All children should have the right to a nine-year compulsory education. "No one has the right to delay school for children just because they come from a rural area or their parents cannot afford the fees," he said.
Sun Zhao's daughter is lucky. Her father has left struggling times behind and is financially capable of putting her through high school in Beijing. Sun is able to take his daughter to the bookshops, and expand her own private library. He has high hopes for her. "Being born in a rural family is not a child's fault. We are trying our best to provide her with a good education no matter how hard it is," Sun says.
(China Daily November 4, 2004)