School Choice & Charters

Free Market Spurs Diverse Offerings of Private Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — June 19, 2007 5 min read

From middle-class urbanites with stable incomes to migrant workers struggling to earn a living, an increasingly diverse cross section of Chinese families is turning to private schools, sometimes out of necessity, but in many cases by choice.

Roughly 23 million children—about 9 percent of China’s total student population—attend private schools, according to recent estimates from the Ministry of Education.

Much of that demand comes from poor families who face legal or financial barriers to enrolling their children in public schools. But the market also includes wealthier families who can afford to send their children to relatively posh private institutions, some of which have state-of-the-art campuses rivaling those of the most elite schools in the United States.

Overall demand for education in China is rising as academic ability becomes increasingly crucial to succeeding in the country’s expanding free-market economy.

Cities, in particular, are seeing an influx of migrant workers from rural areas who are seeking schools for their children. In the southern city of Zhuhai, private schools serving families from many economic backgrounds are easing the burden on crowded public schools, a top official said.

“It is a good phenomenon,” said Wang Wei, the director of the Zhuhai-Xiangzhou school system. “The more choices and options you have, the more civilized a society you can be. … This kind of diversity can inspire new thoughts.”

Mr. Wang’s school district currently enrolls about 90,000, though the student population is growing by about 6,000 a year, he estimates. Much of the increase is driven by migrant families moving from villages to Zhuhai, a bustling manufacturing and shipping hub, in search of work.

IN THE GREEN: A student runs in a courtyard at the Yung Wing School in Zhuhai, a state-owned school run by a real estate company.

The district is trying to keep up with demand by buying land and building new schools, but private schools are relieving some of the crunch, Mr. Wang said.

Private schools in China are owned and operated by individuals, businesses, and private universities. Some are overseen by companies whose main business is education; others are controlled by private interests that see schools as a profitable investment, those familiar with the system say.

Some are quasi-public, run by state-owned corporations and other government-controlled entities. One top school in Zhuhai, the Yung Wing School, is owned by the government but run by the Huafa Group, a real estate company, school officials say.

“The diversity of ownership and management has probably outstripped that in the United States,” said Gerald A. Postiglione, a professor of education at Hong Kong University, who has researched Chinese schools extensively. Many private schools in China, he said, are run by former public school teachers or administrators, who believe they can run their own schools more effectively.

MANDARIN DRILLS: Examples of students’ Chinese character-writing are taped outside a math class at Yung Wing.

Although China has operated under a Communist government for than a half-century, the country has a centuries-old tradition of private education. Private schools, organized by families and community leaders, were common in villages where government schools were not available. Schools run by foreign missionaries, which took hold in the 1800s, later influenced those established by Chinese educators, said Zeyu Xu, a research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, who has studied private schools’ history in China.

Private education was officially abolished in 1949, when the Communist Party and its chairman, Mao Zedong, came to power. It was not until the late 1970s that it returned, when new leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in far-reaching economic reforms.

Wealth Brings Options

Over the next quarter-century, the market for private schools expanded. For many Chinese families, however, the most desirable options were still public schools, which had strong reputations and academic services, said Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Private schools were traditionally regarded as “second-chance schools” for students whose exam scores or financial circumstances did not allow them to enroll in public schools, said Mr. Levin, who directs the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

Many families, then and now, have sought out private schools because they lacked other options. Many Chinese cities have residency restrictions, for instance, that heap extra costs on migrant families from rural areas who want to send their children to public schools. Private schools, some of which spring up almost overnight, become the most practical choice for those students.

But today, more private schools are also seeking to compete with public schools and appeal to families with money. More exclusive—and costly—private schools offering specialized academic services and upscale facilities have become the primary option for a growing number of families, say people acquainted with the system.

Running a private school is often a profitable business, Mr. Levin noted. Many private schools, as a result, are being run by individuals or companies that have little or no experience in education, he said. Those private operators can hold costs down by hiring teachers at relatively low salaries as they rake in tuition and fees. “There’s a lot of underutilized talent in China—teachers who want to teach,” Mr. Levin said. “They’re willing to teach for cheap.”

Yet as personal income rises across China, and the market for private schools expands, the risk is that disadvantaged students who struggle to get into top public schools will be shut out of private schools, too, said Mr. Xu of the AIR.

Students’ access to high-quality education in China has always hinged largely on their scores on exams, which have a strong influence over teaching and curriculum. While that system has serious flaws, Mr. Xu said, the private market for education poses a different set of challenges for China and its government.

The exam system is “totally competition-based,” he said. Huge inequalities exist between social classes, and the private system, he said, could transfer “some of the inequality into the next generation of students.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Free Market Spurs Diverse Offerings Of Private Schools

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