Schools Overcharge Students, Revealing Imbalances in China's Education System

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China's National Development and Reform Committee (NDRC) announced that eight schools overcharged parents to the tune of 22.7 million RMB (US $2.84 million) during the 2004-05 period, Xinhua News reported on February 19. The blacklisted schools were named following the third round of a nationwide spot check on educational fees. Four of the blacklisted schools were public middle schools, which are required to provide free education under Chinese education law. Extra charges included $205,000 for "sponsorship" fees, $210,000 for English teaching fees, and $430,000 for laundry fees.

Xinhua News reports growing public anger about the excessive fees since results of the investigation were announced. Thousands of Internet "bloggers" have posted comments on leading Chinese websites, including Xinhua, Sina, and Sohu, noting that a large number of Chinese schools engage in unfair fee charging. Under China's 1986 compulsory education law, which stipulates a nine-year state education system at the primary and junior middle school levels, public school students are supposed to be exempted from all tuition charges, though they must pay certain miscellaneous fees.

China's central and local governments, individual families, and a variety of other social channels jointly shoulder the costs of compulsory state education. In urban areas, however, the uneven distribution of resources among state-run schools has led some parents to pay extra to select more desirable schools for their children, thus encouraging the charging of illegal fees. In a move to provide more equal access to education, Shanghai's municipal government recently decreed that state schools must automatically enroll any school-age children in their districts, without first requiring entrance examinations.

In contrast, many children in poor rural areas are missing out on compulsory education due to the wide income gap between urban and rural areas and the inability of local governments to pool funds to support public schooling. Because China does not yet have the capacity to grant free compulsory education nationwide, the government is now giving priority to rural regions, with the aim of exempting all rural students receiving state schooling from paying both miscellaneous and tuition fees by 2010.

Free and compulsory education is identified as a fundamental human right by the United Nations. The U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals stipulate that every school-age boy and girl complete a full course of primary education. Currently, as many as one-third of all children in developing countries attend school for less than five years, according to the Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs 2002 report.

Formal education in China has improved significantly in recent decades. Statistics from the U.N. Millennium Development Goals Report 2005 indicate that the literacy rate among the country's 15-24 year-olds reached 98.9 percent in 2004, with a rate of 99.2 percent for men and 98.5 percent for women. Compared with 1990, these rates increased by 1.2 percent and 5.4 percent for men and women, respectively.

Nevertheless, according to the Ministry of Education's "National Report on Education for All," released in November 2005, 87 million people in China remain illiterate, 23 million of whom are youths and middle-aged individuals. Eight percent of the country has not yet adopted the nine-year compulsory education system, and all of these areas are in the poorer and more remote western regions.