A crumbling promise in China: access to school

Many urban families cannot afford the mounting expenses

In cold Jilin city in China's rugged northeast, a thin boy named Li Zhonggang darts around a dusty alley. His mother scolds him from nearby as she helps an elderly couple repair a window for small change. It's early afternoon, and as other 10-year-olds recite passages from textbooks, Li is simply wandering the streets.

He is one face of a disturbing trend: city kids so destitute that they cannot go to school.

One of socialist China's proudest and most remarkable achievements was to provide basic education for most of its children, and even today the Ministry of Education's guarantee of nine years of education to China's 200 million children is considered its most important task. Although Chinese officials acknowledge that many rural children do not have access to schooling, they say that all city kids can go to school.

A few years ago that may have been true, but not anymore. With the onslaught of the market economy, China's iron rice bowl - its socialist guarantees of employment, housing, schooling, and medical care - is shattered. Beijing has been reducing education subsidies during the past few years, even as schools enroll more and more students.

Today, China spends less than 3 percent of GDP on education, meaning that it is trying to educate one-quarter of the world's students with 1 percent of the world's education budget. Fifty students must cram into a tiny classroom. In many parts of urban China, schools are decrepit and dilapidated, and some cannot even pay teachers. Earlier this year, school officials in Jiangxi Province were found forcing students to make firecrackers in the school basement.

To compensate for reduced government support, schools continually raise tuition, which the government endorses in an attempt to increase consumer spending.

Beijingers now spend a total of $8,000 on a child's K-12 education, according to a recent survey. In a time of rising urban unemployment, fewer and fewer families can afford this amount. Some, like the Li family, cannot afford even basic schooling.

The Lis live in an industrial part of the country. Once called a worker's paradise, the region's outdated money-losing factories earn it the moniker "China's rust-belt." Statistics are kept secret, but an estimated one-third to one-half of Jilin's workers are now unemployed.

Li Ming, the boy's father, is one of the hundreds of thousands of roaming unemployed. His family was doing well until the state-owned factory where he worked went bankrupt in 1996. Older employees retired early, but Mr. Li was in his early thirties and found himself at the mercy of the market.

Every morning, he goes to stand in one of the city's "labor markets," a street corner where gruff middle-age men wait for someone to employ them for the day. If he manages to find jobs, he can make $25 a month, just enough for food.

That's why young Li can't go to school. "I can't ask friends and relatives for money, because we can never pay them back," says his mother, Li Hua.

She has taught him some mathematics, but she herself has only an elementary-level education. The boy has yet to learn to read or write.

With tears gently streaming down her face, his mother adds: "He can't go to school, so he can't find a job when he grows up. I feel guilty."

Liao Haimin, a professor specializing in K-12 education at Northeastern Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province's capital, says that parents are asked to contribute toward their children's schooling because government funds are limited.

"It's not that much," he says, "but there are a few instances when families can't afford the tuition."

Some parents, of course, don't agree that it's "not that much." "Schooling costs $75 a year, but miscellaneous expenses - textbooks, uniforms, trips - double that," says Wang Dexun, a laid-off worker in Jilin. "That's two months of paid wages for an employed worker - what about us laid-off workers?"

Mr. Wang believes that the costs are ratcheted up because schools know that Chinese families value education greatly and will pay anything for their only child to attend.

"Today, kids are really worried," he continues. "On one hand, if they don't study hard, they can't get into university and get employed. On the other hand, if they do study hard, their parents may not be able to afford the high costs of senior high school and university."

The issue is sensitive in China, and there is no official recognition of this growing problem. But a visit to another "rust-belt" city, Shenyang, also illustrates the dire circumstances families face.

There, two laid-off brothers are finding it difficult to send their children to school. Sun Baopu makes only $25 a month selling cookies on the streets, but he managed to scrape enough money together to send his 7-year-old son to first grade this year.

His unemployed younger brother, Sun Baozhong, however, leaves his 7-year-old daughter at home.

"If I find a job next year, then I can send my daughter to school," he says. "If I can't, then she'll just stay at home."

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