Standing in the ruins of the school he founded seven years ago to educate the children of Beijing's migrant workforce, Wang Yi seems at a loss for words. His feet crunch on pulverized concrete and nuggets of red brick, and the midday sun glints off a blue-tiled base where a flagpole once stood.
As principal of the New Millennium school, Mr. Wang oversaw the teaching of 430 gradeschoolers until the closure order came in July. Two months later, a demolition crew moved in. Wang still runs a kindergarten nearby, but is worried that it, too, could be shuttered amid a crackdown on unregistered schools in Beijing.
"If they close us down, the children have nowhere to go," he says.
This refrain is echoing across the grittier parts of China's capital, where millions of migrants have come in recent decades. Their labor sustains the vast construction that is transforming the city for the 2008 Olympics. But as nonresidents, they are denied access to services, including free education.
Hundreds of private schools have sprung up in migrant communities, flourishing in the shadow of the public school system. In recent months, though, a wave of closures has left parents struggling to find new places. The timing of the move has angered educators, divided families, and sparked accusations that Beijing wants to deter migrants from staying through the Olympics as part of an image makeover.
Authorities deny that the closures are linked to the Olympics or that migrants could face expulsion in 2008, as a state-run newspaper recently reported. This report "has no basis in fact," Zhou Jidong, head of Beijing's legal department, said Sept. 27. "The rights of migrant workers should be protected. It's important to recognize their contribution to Beijing."
The row is a reminder of the scrutiny that Beijing will face as it prepares to stage an Olympics that it hopes will cement its rising global status, while giving critics a platform to snipe at its human rights record.
Education officials point out that the shuttered schools were unsafe, unregistered, and substandard, and say that students can transfer to public schools and registered private schools. Extra government funding will be made available to absorb the overflow and improve standards in other private schools for migrants, say officials.
It's unclear how many schools have closed. In July, municipal authorities issued a notice to close 239 unregistered schools by Sept. 30, but educators say some have since been reprieved. Human Rights Watch estimates that some 50 schools were closed recently, and condemned the crackdown.
China mandates nine years of compulsory education for all school-age children, normally in locally run public schools. Until 1998, Beijing refused to enroll nonresidents in public schools, fueling the spread of private schools in migrant communities on the edge of the sprawling city.
Today, some two-thirds of Beijing's 300,000-400,000 migrant-worker children are said to attend public schools, which levy extra fees on nonresidents.
The other third attend private schools that vary widely in quality, says Yang Dongping, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Some of the better ones are registered and receive government grants. Others fall short. "There should be a long-term plan of how to manage these schools, as Beijing needs them. The government can't provide education services to all the migrant kids that want them," he says.
On the playground at Beijing Mingyuan, a grade and middle school founded in 1995, rows of migrant students twirled and sang last week to nationalist anthems to celebrate Oct. 1, national day. The hubbub rose to the windowless office of principal Jia Nam. In July, he was told that 37 of the 39 private schools in his district faced closure, including his own.
When classes resumed in August after vacation, Mr. Jia informed parents of the order, and asked if any wanted to withdraw their children. Sixty did, leaving behind a student body of 467. The next month, he heard that his school had been given a temporary reprieve to stay open, though it was judged below par.
"Strictly speaking, we don't meet the standards laid down by the education department. We can't meet them. This is the best we can do," he says.
Educators say putting these schools on a legal footing is difficult, as they need deep pockets to register. Some say that regulators refuse to grant permits.
Nor does everyone agree that underperformers are being cut. One principal, who requested anonymity, said his school won a district prize for essay writing two years ago but was recently forced to close. "This is definitely because of the Olympics," he says.
Some students at Wang's demolished school have gone back to hometowns, while others have transferred to public schools or other private schools. Hu Qingju, a migrant from Sichuan Province who opened a restaurant with her chef-husband, decided to send her fifth-grade son to live with his grandparents. Her first-grader has switched to the kindergarten that is still open.
Ms. Hu has few illusions about her children's rights to school in Beiijng, though she has lived there since 1992. "[W]e're migrant workers. We can't determine anything. If our children can't go to school here, they just have to go back home," she says.