School Choice & Charters

Chinese Migrants Rely on Private Institutions to Educate Children

By Sean Cavanagh — June 19, 2007 9 min read
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The narrow streets outside the elementary school rattle with the sounds of auto-repair and sewing shops. Traffic crawls past vendors selling fruit from wooden crates and the trunks of cars.

When workers from rural villages across southern China set out for cities in search of better jobs and a better life, that journey often takes them to neighborhoods like this one, a teeming section of Guangzhou’s Hai zhu district.

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Burrowed deep within this urban honeycomb, behind a high weather-beaten gate, is Kangle Elementary School, which is working to meet the new arrivals’ needs. It is one of countless private schools across China that serve migrant students, who have long struggled to secure a place in this country’s classrooms. These days, they pour into cities like Guangzhou in ever-greater numbers.

As befits a nation of 1.3 billion, estimates of China’s migratory workforce are staggering. There are believed to be at least 120 million migrants in China—more than one-third the United States’ total population—though some estimates are much higher.

Migrants play an important role in the country’s burgeoning free-market economy, filling jobs in factories, construction, and service industries. Guanghzou, a sprawling city of 10 million residents, is a major destination for them, and today it has more than 250,000 school-age migrant children, according to official estimates.

The backgrounds of students at Kangle Elementary are familiar to migrants across southern China. Their families moved here from rural villages in Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi provinces, among other regions, where opportunities for work, other than farming, are limited.

He Jinghong was impressed by those families’ resolve. She remembers the first time she visited Kangle Elementary a few years ago, when a friend took her on a tour of its grounds. Ms. He had retired from a career as a public school principal. Something about seeing the migrant school drew her back.

“When I came here, I was shocked by the poor conditions,” recalled Ms. He, now Kangle’s principal. “However, I was also moved—by the students, who were very diligent and very hard working, and by the teachers, who are highly qualified.”

Class and Social Status

Even today, her surroundings at the school are modest. The principal greets a visitor in a spare second-story meeting room, where curtains resembling bedsheets flutter in the window and sporadic bursts from horns and mufflers stifle voices.

Down a cement stairwell, students in green-and-white uniforms gather in the school’s courtyard, where some play basketball and others wait for buses to take them home. Pickup times are written on a chalkboard inside the front gate.

Most migrant families make a financial sacrifice to send their children to Kangle Elementary. The per-semester price tag is about 1,000 yuan, or roughly $120, in tuition and fees, a steep cost for families who are likely to earn no more than several hundred yuan per month.

Enrolling a child at any school is an achievement for migrant families, many of whom face daunting barriers in that pursuit.

One long-standing obstacle is hukou, a housing-registration system that categorizes Chinese citizens as being from the city or the countryside. The Communist government created the system in the 1950s as a way to limit mobility and balance productivity between urban and rural areas. In many cities today, hukou restricts access to public services, including public education, to urban residents.

The first nine years of education in China are compulsory. While public school is supposed to be free of charge, many public schools charge tuition and fees, and in urban areas, families who are not from the city are often forced to pay more. Private schools, such as Kangle Elementary, present a more affordable option for migrants.

Hukou status is determined largely by inheritance from parents. For natives of rural areas, changing such standing is difficult. Some local governments have sought to reform the system in recent years, but many of those improvements are minor, said Kam Wing Chan, a professor of geography at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who has studied hukou extensively.

“There are some changes at the fringes, but the main system is still the same,” Mr. Chan said. “The reality is that only a small percentage of migrants are accepted.”

HIGH GOALS: Students walk to their on-campus dorm rooms after classes at the Zhuhai Experimental High School. As its name implies, the public school tries to offer innovative lessons along with the national curriculum.

Migrants who gain entry to public schools also face ridicule and discrimination from their urban counterparts, who see them as culturally backward, said Wei Ji Ma, the president of the Rural China Education Foundation. In schools, migrant students’ unease is often made worse because they arrive from poor, rural villages with weaker academic skills than those of their city classmates, said Mr. Ma, whose organization, made up of scholars and volunteers in Asia and the United States, seeks to improve curriculum and teaching in areas outside of China’s cities.

“One part is the official discrimination—that they’re not treated well [in government policy],” Mr. Ma said. “The second part is the unofficial discrimination in the attitude of the people toward migrants.”

China’s central government encourages local governments to improve the rights of migrant workers. But local authorities have also cracked down on private migrant schools they deem substandard.

Last year, government authorities cited dangerous conditions and poor academic services in shutting down dozens of migrant schools in Beijing, serving several thousand students. Those closures drew criticism from observers in China and abroad. The international organization Human Rights Watch questioned whether the crackdown was ordered to clean up the city in preparation for its hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games.

DIVERSE RANKS: Tang Dawei, left, says he finds many advantages to the Experimental School, which recruits students from different ethnic backgrounds.

“The message is, ‘You can come here long enough to do the construction work for us, but don’t think about staying,’ ” said Sophie Richardson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York City.

The best schools for migrants, Ms. Richardson said, are often founded and operated by better-educated migrants and others sympathetic to those workers’ plight. For Yuan Wenbeng, a mathematics teacher at Kangle Elementary School, the motivation for working with that population was obvious. He considers himself a migrant, having moved to Guangzhou seven years ago from Jiangxi province.

Mr. Yuan, 32, says one of his biggest challenges is convincing his migrant students that they have talent—and persuading their parents to allow those talents to flourish.

He recalls a former student from Sichuan province, in central China, who struggled in math and other subjects but showed a strong talent in painting. When the girl’s parents voiced concerns about her poor grades and suggested that she give up artwork and focus on academics, Mr. Yuan said he talked them out of it. The student’s art abilities would help her overall development, he told them.

Over time, the girl’s schoolwork improved, and she blossomed as an artist, winning several awards. The teacher can remember other migrant students who made similar progress and went on to attend good secondary schools and universities.

“This school offers a lot of opportunities for these students,” Mr. Yuan said. “After they [leave here], they will have more and more opportunities to improve their social status.”

Choices Vary

Since students at Kangle Elementary and many other migrant schools tend to come from families with few financial resources, it is easy to overlook the diversity of China’s migrant population, Mr. Chan said. Some migrants move to cities with little or no money, he noted, but others leave relatively stable lives in one region for the promise of something better. Migrants from different financial backgrounds seek out different schools.

Zhuhai Experimental High School, about two hours from Guangzhou, serves a broad range of migrant families, including those with relatively well-paying jobs. Its campus, a collection of tall modernistic academic buildings and dorms overlooking groomed grounds, is located about 20 minutes outside Zhuhai, on a rambling plain of sugar cane and banana fields and construction sites.

Part of the public boarding school’s mission, as specified by the local government, is to recruit students from different ethnic backgrounds. At least 10 ethnic minorities in China are represented in its student body, including Tibetans, Mongolians, and Kazakhs, many of whose families moved to the fast-growing Zhuhai region in search of work.

One such student is Tang Dawei, a 16-year-old of Hui descent, one of China’s largest ethnic minority populations. The teenager grew up in the Xinjiang province in northwest China. While he confesses to being homesick, the youth also says his new school offers many advantages over the one he attended in Xinjiang. Teachers here are more apt to praise his work, he says, and he is encouraged to do more research on his own.

The Zhuhai Experimental School, as its name suggests, attempts to supplement China’s mandatory national curriculum with innovative academic lessons. It places a strong emphasis on technology and independent student projects, which Mr. Tang finds appealing.

“It was a good opportunity to see something new, something I could not get in my hometown,” said the teenager, who wants to go to college and become an architect. His parents, both factory workers, tell him “to work hard and get an education to get a better future.”

Touched by Stereotypes

Sixteen-year-old Tian Rui, who grew up in Hunan province, is another recent arrival in Zhuhai. His parents found work at a Honda factory, and he now attends the Yung Wing School, one of the city’s more elite public schools.

The teenager says he wants to gain admission to a good high school, then go to college and study physics. His parents encourage him—and regularly remind him of the opportunity he’s been given.

“Through education, one can achieve success,” he said they tell him often.

Liu Jianmin, the administrator of school affairs at Kangle Elementary, hears migrant parents speak with similar determination. It’s partly why it frustrates him when others spread stereotypes about such families.

“People feel like the students here, their ability or character may be lower than public school students’,” said Mr. Liu, who also teaches math. “I don’t agree.”

Many of the school’s students have been separated for the first time from a family member who is close to them, usually a grandparent. Mr. Liu says he tries to encourage those pupils to think about their new elementary school as a different kind of family.

“Here’s a new brother,” Mr. Liu tells them. “Here’s a new sister.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chinese Migrants Rely on Private Institutions to Educate Children

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