Beijing school closures leave thousands of migrant children without classrooms

Chinese officials in Beijing shut down 24 illegal schools for migrant children over the summer in a move that highlights the institutionalized discrimination facing the migrant workforce.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
A teacher waves goodbye to students as they leave after the day's classes at Dongba Experimental School, a school for migrant workers' children, in Beijing, on Aug. 23.

Just days before the new school year opens, Beijing’s education authorities are scrambling to find classrooms for thousands of migrant workers’ children whose old schools the government closed without warning over the summer.

The public outcry that followed the closures has highlighted the institutionalized discrimination that China’s migrant workers face, and the lack of a coherent government policy to educate their children.

Local officials “don’t know what to do about the problem so they just lash out” says Jonathan Hursh, founder of Compassion for Migrant Children, explaining the sudden closure of 24 technically illegal but long-tolerated schools over the past two months.

The move left 14,000 children without a school place when term starts next Thursday.

They had been attending some of the approximately 300 private schools that have sprung up in Beijing in recent years to cope with the massive influx of migrant workers who do not have resident status in the capital; there are now 249,000 such children between 6 and 14 in Beijing, according to the city’s statistics bureau.

Migrant families' dilemma

Few migrants can send their children to free public schools because they lack the documents required for entry into a system designed for settled residents of the capital.

Instead, they are obliged to pay to send their children to mostly illegal, unregulated informal schools where the standards vary wildly, but where teachers rarely have any training or much experience.

Migrant childrens’ schools “are a mixed bag,” says Mr. Hursh, whose nongovernmental organization helps educate migrant children. “Some headmasters have very little interest in the kids and some are very inspirational.”

The education authorities said they were closing the schools they targeted because of health and safety concerns, charges that the headmaster-owners of the establishments challenge.

Like 80 percent of migrant childrens’ schools “I was never given a permit,” complains Liu Jigui, founder of the Yu Cai primary school in Beijing’s poor eastern suburbs. “So I was worried that if I invested in improvements maybe the government would demolish the place the next day and the money would be wasted. But I maintained the facilities.”

Some observers suggest the capital’s rulers are deliberately making it harder for migrants to educate their children so as to dissuade them from seeking work in the overcrowded city.

“Beijing’s concern is that if they solve all the migrant kids’ education problems, poor families from everywhere will pour in,” says one official with a Chinese NGO dealing with migrants’ problems.

But Beijing depends so heavily on the migrants who clear its trash, build its skyscrapers, operate its corner stores, and run its services that the city would grind to a halt without them.

Why schools closed

The reasons for the school closures – following a similar crackdown five years ago that was later quietly reversed – seem mixed.

In some cases it appears that local governments simply want to develop and profit from the land the schools occupied. In the southern district of Daxing, for example, seven schools were closed and their pupils dispersed with their families as the authorities confiscated large swathes of land and knocked down schools and surrounding homes.

Four other Daxing schools that had been ordered to close were later given a reprieve after attracting media attention to their plight, said the headmaster of one of such school, Zhang Mingrui.

In the northwestern district of Haidian, meanwhile, 4,000 pupils from four schools found themselves on the street until media pressure and an outcry on the Internet forced the education authorities to hastily backtrack last week and promise to find all the children places in local public schools, with or without the proper documents.

“It is my dream to see migrant children get into public schools,” says Zhang Xiaohu, the headmaster of one closed school in Haidian. “But I don’t believe the district has enough public school places to take them all.”

Hursh shares his skepticism. “They can put a few hundred kids into a school, but can 14,000 kids access the public system right now? Certainly not,” he says.

A profit-making scheme?

That reality appears to explain the Chaoyang district government’s plan to reassign children from closed schools to other, newly renovated private schools. But headmaster Liu, surveying his empty classrooms, sees ulterior motives behind this, and so do his counterparts from eight other nearby schools forced to shut by the Chaoyang government.

“I signed off on my closure because I was told the kids would be going to a public school,” says Liu. “But it turned out not to be true.”

Instead, they were reassigned to new, private, fee-paying schools that have taken over former public school buildings, refurbished at government expense.

Liu and other local headmasters charge that local education department officials used their posts to take over public buildings and spend public money to create a commercial chain of schools from which they will personally profit.

“They closed my school because it’s too close to the new ones they have set up and they would not have got enough pupils if I were still open,” says Liu.

“They stole our pupils and they stole our teachers,” adds Wan Tianbing, co-head of another nearby school that was closed, the Dongba Experimental School. “If the government wanted to help migrant kids why didn’t they give more resources to us, instead of to some new person?”

Li Bingying, the retired teacher who heads the Anmin chain of nine new schools enjoying local government support, refused to answer questions about her venture. The spokesman for the Chaoyang education department failed to return several telephone calls over three days. A woman in charge of pupil enrollment at one Anmin school who would not identify herself would say only that it was “a privately run, government authorized school."

Parents enrolling their children this week seemed confused but unconcerned by the establishment’s status – happy just to have found somewhere for their kids to go to school at all after the sudden closure of their previous school.

But even if most of the 14,000 children to whom the government has promised new schools are indeed accommodated, Hursh points out, they are only the tip of an iceberg.

“Those 14,000 need a solution very soon, but what about the other 200,000 kids in Beijing who lack access to public schools?” he wonders. “When is someone going to make a genuine effort to provide those kids with a proper education?”

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