China's migrant schools skirt law
Migrant laborers living in illegal urban shantytowns create schools to keep their families together in the city.
The Xingzhi primary school is a smudge of packed dirt and drafty shacks on the outskirts of Beijing, brightened only by the children's colorful clothes and the propaganda on the walls.Skip to next paragraph
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"Society is our savior!" exhorts one large poster: This school relies on donations and the families it serves to pay its bills. There's no government help, because the school is illegal.
Tucked out of sight down a muddy path, Xingzhi is one of perhaps 100 illegal schools that have sprouted around the capital to educate the roughly 100,000 children of Beijing's migrant workers.
Since the 1950s, China's residence permits have controlled where people live and allowed them to move only with special permission. Peasants were supposed to stay on their farms and urban workers in their towns. But today millions of workers seeking jobs are skirting official policy and creating their own ad-hoc communities on the urban fringe. China's cities are growing by an average of 3 percent a year, and the government says there are at least 70 million migrant workers and transients who have moved to the cities. Western analysts quote numbers as high as 200 million to 300 million.
Expecting to earn higher wages selling vegetables in Beijing, Li Shumei left her teaching job in the middle of central China's Hennan Province. But because few could afford the high tuition the established schools charged families without permanent residence, other migrants pressed Ms. Li back into service as a teacher. She opened the Xingzhi school in 1994.
At first there were only a handful of students. But a year later, Li's husband, Yi Benyao, left his job as granary manager in the countryside to become principal for the growing school.
At Xingzhi, classrooms packed with 50 students are heated by a single small coal stove that does little to ward off the cold in the winter. Children practice a traditional fan dance outside on a raised cement block, their only stage. The textbooks are dog-eared, fourth-generation hand-me-downs.
The school's meager resources force it to make do with a motley crew of volunteers and teachers - only a few of whom are certified. Most, like the children, have come from other regions looking for opportunity.
With tuition costing $80 per semester, parents who earn about $120 a month can just afford it. But even that isn't enough to cover costs: Only Mr. Yi's shell game with the school's finances keeps it afloat.
Despite the built-in disadvantages at Xingzhi, test scores are comparable with other schools, parents say approvingly. And, as Li Zhondong, a bottled-water deliveryman who enrolled his 11-year-old boy, points out, "the quality [of the education] here is much better than in my hometown."
Demand for the school's services continues to grow. Local media reports have drawn more parents, desperate to keep their families together without sacrificing education. Restaurant worker Zhao Lijun waited three days to find out if her 11-year-old twins could enroll after she heard a news broadcast about the school. "Those days felt like years," she says. Now her daughters are thriving and have bright visions of the future. "I want to be a famous singer and movie star, and make lots of money, and take care of my parents, and make my hometown beautiful," says Jing Meilin, the younger of the two button-nosed, identically dressed sisters.