Sat, Jan 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

China strains to fit migrants into public schools

An edict from 2003 requires that local governments provide public education to all children in their jurisdiction, but the change has not been backed by funds


It seemed like an ordinary day earlier this month at the Jianying Hope School for migrant children in Shanghai, with fidgety students settling down in their modest classrooms as their teachers prepared for the day's lessons. Then the police officers arrived.

Witnesses say at least 100 police arrived, together with even larger numbers of security agents and local officials, who quickly filled the school's courtyard and cordoned off the site. The private elementary school, the teachers and their 2,000 students were informed, was being closed.

"They just showed up and closed the school while we were teaching," said one teacher, who asked that her name not be used for fear of official retribution. "Children were crying, teachers were crying and people were very scared. You know in China that the police are the most frightening thing."

The school closing has been widely criticized -- even on the Web site of the state-run People's Daily. Yet, for all the professed shock, the heavy-handed operation was just one of scores of closings in China's big eastern cities recently as national and local authorities wrestle with a mandate that they provide a public education for the children of migrant workers, who until recently were barred from public schools in their parents' adopted cities.

Indeed, the closing of the Jianying school, far from an effort to deprive the children of an education, was the logical, if rough-edged, consequence of the new measure.

Under complex rules governing social mobility that are a legacy of Maoist times, the laborers from rural China -- who have streamed to the country's rich eastern cities by the millions to build their towering skylines, clean and cook for others and do all kinds of work that more prosperous city dwellers shun -- face widespread discrimination.

Their wages often go unpaid. They are scorned by city dwellers, who often treat them as inferiors. They lack many of the rights of residents to public services, including the right of their children to attend public schools.

Deprived of access to public education, migrants turned to private schools, many of them unlicensed and substandard. Trying to right this wrong, China's State Council, passed a law in 2003 ordering local governments to provide a public school education for all children under their jurisdictions.

But the edict created a huge new burden for local governments without providing the money to carry it out.

Since then, China's big eastern cities, where most of the nation's 20 million or more migrant children live, have been scrambling to find ways to comply. But efforts to carry out the edict have been uneven and bedeviled with unintended consequences. In the worst cases, critics charge, private schools are closed down without any provision for placing the students in public schools.

In Beijing, education experts say, 132 migrant schools were marked for closing last year in a big push to comply with the new law.

But the city failed to provide public schools for the displaced students, the experts said, prompting an uproar and raising suspicions that the government was seeking to reduce the numbers of migrants in the city before the 2008 Olympics, which will be held in the capital.

Beijing's push against the private schools stalled amid complaints of unfairness from the public and charges of human rights violations by legal experts and NGOs. Since then, dozens of the schools have resumed operations, often doing little more than moving to a new location.

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