Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:00 PM CST – China

Special Report

Migrant Children

Unintended Consequences

An admissions policy that keeps most migrant children from enrolling in Beijing schools has pushed many to leave their families for boarding schools in surrounding areas, effectively creating an “education belt,” to the chagrin of overstretched public schools and the delight of thriving private ones

Non-local parents often need to hire companies who specialize in shuttling migrant children to and from school Photo by CNS

More than 70 student desks are crammed into a classroom in an elementary school, Yanjiao, Hebei Province Photo by CNS

Students crowd an elementary school classroom in Yanjiao, Hebei Province Photo by CNS

On a cold, rainy November day, a few hundred students huddled under their parents’ umbrellas to say their monthly good-byes at Beijing West Railway Station.

They were not going hiking or traveling; they were shipping off to a boarding school in the neighboring province, Hebei. Unwilling to tear themselves away from their families, they either cried while holding onto their parents’ hands or squatted on the ground, refusing to follow their teachers.

Their parents, however, had to steel themselves. In 2013, the Beijing government implemented a significant policy change by setting more stringent enrollment requirements for children of parents who do not have a hukou, a Beijing permanent residence permit. As a result, a great number of migrant workers have to send their children to neighboring cities or towns for school. Unlike those who choose to send their children back to their home provinces, these parents can still see their children periodically, albeit generally about once a month, and still keep their jobs in the capital. More importantly, the Hebei provincial regulations allow any student to take the gaokao (China’s national university entrance exam) there as long as he or she has studied in a Hebei high school for at least two years. Typically, students are not allowed to take the gaokao in a specific province unless they have the corresponding hukou.

“Although the [gaokao] score requirements in Hebei are higher than those in Beijing [making it harder to get into a good college], my family remains intact,” one of the parents at the train station told NewsChina.

According to media reports, the 2013 restrictions have already caused an “education belt” to form around the capital. Students at these schools are “sitting on the threshold” of Beijing. No matter whether it is a burden or an opportunity for the capital’s neighboring regions, the children and their parents have learned to deal with this consequence of China’s ballooning urban population.

Tighter Restrictions

Before her son reached school age, Li Yun (pseudonym), a migrant white-collar employee of a public relations company in Beijing, did not realize how different her life would be compared to those who have a Beijing hukou. Since settling in the capital in 2004, she has found a steady job, gotten married and even bought a house, all without a residence permit.

That illusion of equality broke completely when Li was told her son could not enroll in a Beijing school until she submitted 28 required certificates and permits, including records that she paid social insurance in Tongzhou District, where she resides.

“My insurance is paid in Haidian District, where I work,” Li said. “How could I have such records in Tongzhou?” Her son cannot enroll in a Haidian school, either, because that is not their district of residence. She was stuck. A great number of parents are caught in this same conundrum, especially those living in suburban districts where residential housing is much cheaper than apartments in downtown areas.

These restrictions trace back to 2013, when the Beijing government first proposed new measures to curb the city’s swelling population. The following year, the government defined “controlling disorderly population growth” as one of its primary tasks. In 2015, the government announced the goal of capping the population at 23 million by 2020, allowing only two million more residents than the number recorded in 2014.

Tightening up restrictions on education is one of the measures the government is adopting to clamp down on population growth. Starting in 2014, all Beijing elementary schools have required new students to submit an array of up to 28 certificates and permits for a spot in class. In addition, at least one of the child’s parents must have paid social insurance in that school’s district for at least six months.

“I have lived in Beijing for 11 years, and paid as much in taxes and social insurance as a normal Beijinger. Why is my son refused enrollment just because I don’t live and work in the same district?” Li Yun exclaimed. “How many people actually meet that requirement?”

Liu Ning (pseudonym), an engineer who also lives in the capital without a Beijing hukou, agreed. He told NewsChina that he had tried every means possible to communicate with schools in both the district where he works and where he lives in order to enroll his son, but always received one simple reply: You do not meet the requirements. “Even if I planned to move right now, it would be too late [for my son to attend a Beijing school],” he said.

Workarounds

Because of the new policy, Beijing elementary schools reportedly admitted just 55,233 kids without a Beijing hukou in 2014, about 16,000 fewer than the previous year. Admitted migrant students made up less than 38 percent of those registering for school, a 7 percent drop compared to 2013. Li Yun’s Tongzhou District enrolled a total of more than 7,000 new elementary students in 2013, but the next year only about 3,000 new students entered Tongzhou’s classrooms.

Some parents who succeeded in enrolling their children in a Beijing school fought tooth and nail to claim their kid-sized desk. They fabricated the necessary certificates and permits, or even faked a divorce in order to meet the harsher requirement some districts have implemented, which call for both of the married couple to have paid social insurance in their preferred school’s district.

Many others turned toward Beijing’s private schools, which have looser restrictions for prospective students, but were frightened off by sky-high tuition fees or poor conditions.

Thus, schools in neighboring cities or towns have become the best choice for those parents who are neither willing to quit their jobs in the capital nor amenable to leaving their children behind in their hometowns.

Many families have availed themselves of this option. Official 2014 data from Beijing-adjacent Langfang, Hebei Province, showed that its local elementary schools admitted about 11,000 more students than they had the previous year, and its middle schools enrolled about 23,000 more. Hebei’s county-level city of Sanhe saw a 9.8 percent year-on-year increase in elementary school student intake in 2014.

One Langfang middle school principal who declined to give her name said that her school accepted 1,200 new students in 2015, only half of whom live in Langfang. She said some parents who work in Beijing have forged certificates that show they have bought a house in Langfang in order to make the enrollment process easier. “I actually don’t know how those students got admitted,” she said. “I find these parents both pitiable and frightening.”

“About to Break”

Flooded by this deluge of students flowing out of Beijing, the capital’s neighboring regions, which are comparatively underdeveloped, are overwhelmed by the increase in demand. And resources are running low.

Zhang Dong, a resident of Yanjiao, a town within Sanhe, told NewsChina that the Huifu Experimental Elementary School, a public school near his residential community, had planned to move some students to another campus located far away from the first to accommodate the newcomers. Parents protested adamantly against the change.

“We have a severe shortage of classrooms,” Huifu vice principal Li Liqiang told NewsChina. “In 2009, when the school was established, we only had 700 students from first through seventh grade, but by 2015, we had enrolled 1,000 students in first grade alone. The school was designed to accommodate 2,500 students, but now it holds 5,300.”

To respond to the student boom, Huifu is using many multipurpose and activity rooms as classrooms, and has expanded the size of each class from 45 students to 80. Teachers now use loudspeakers in class.

Sun Shimeng, deputy director of Sanhe’s local education bureau, told NewsChina that the city has long insisted that both local and non-local students be treated equally, only to find that the number of students has skyrocketed in recent years due to the area’s relaxed admission policies and lower housing prices. Official data showed that the elementary schools in Sanhe’s Yanjiao area enrolled 6,000 new students in 2014, three times the 2013 number.

Under pressure from protesting parents, Huifu finally kept all children in Zhang Dong’s residential community at the original campus, but it could not supply enough teachers. “The local education bureau did not allocate us enough staff, and it is hard to employ temporary teachers due to the stiff hiring requirements and low salary,” Li Liqiang told NewsChina. “All of the teachers in our school are now overburdened with work, even though we suspended some activities.” Li added that his school has demanded its vice principals also teach classes until the education bureau approves its application for an increase in teachers.

“The pressure from the student boom is a frequent topic of discussion amongst us school principals,” said the head of a Langfang school who declined to give his name. “It’s like a string pulled so tight it’s about to break.”

Going Private

The outpouring of students from Beijing has played out very differently for neighboring regions’ private schools, however. Instead of starvation, they are experiencing a period of plenty. Because these schools do not usually have hukou- or insurance-related admission requirements, they view the recent policy shift as an opportunity for development.

That is why migrant parents Li Yun and Liu Ning both decided to send their kids to Yingcai, a private boarding school in Hengshui, another city within Hebei Province. Although the overall quality of the school was not as good as the parents expected, it had the advantage of being only a short distance away from Beijing – two to three hours by train.

Though still underdeveloped, Hengshui has been branding itself as a “city of education” since the 1990s. “Hengshui possesses more than 30 private schools in one district alone,” Yingcai principal Zhang Zhenyou told NewsChina. “As supply has not yet met the educational demands of the migrant population, there is a lot of room for private schools to grow.”

Yingcai students are allowed to return home once a month. The school’s student body has increased from 40 students during its first year in 1996 to 6,000 this year, one-fifth of whom commute from Beijing. To better serve the migrant student population, the school has expanded dormitories and arranged for special train services to transport Yingcai students from Hengshui to Beijing and back.

In September, the local government of Gu’an, a county within Langfang that is only 50 kilometers south of Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square, co-founded a new private school with Beijing No. 8 Middle School and the private firm China Fortune Land Development Co. Ltd. Despite the expensive tuition (nearly US$6,000 per year), the school has enrolled about 436 elementary school students and 268 middle schoolers.

Criticism

No matter which Hebei school Beijing-dwelling parents choose, they suffer the trauma of separation and an extra financial burden, leading Beijing’s school admissions policy for migrant children to come under fierce fire since its implementation. 

On June 16, 2014, over 120 Beijing parents without a local hukou gathered before the petition office of the capital’s Chaoyang District Education Bureau to protest the harsh restrictions. Many were involved in a physical altercation with police. On May 14, 2015, another 200 parents held a demonstration at the same education bureau, holding slogans saying “Please lift the restrictions” and “Please give our children a chance for an education.” Similar incidents also occurred in several other districts, according to media reports.

The protests have aroused sympathy among observers, with many saying the policies discriminate against migrant populations and violate children’s right to an education, as guaranteed in China’s constitution.

Beijing natives, however, tend to stand on the government’s side. For a long time, those with a Beijing hukou have complained that migrant people have contended with them for limited resources. On tianya.cn, a popular Chinese online forum, some Beijingers described outsiders as “a swarm of flies buzzing around a fat piece of meat.” In response, Beijing migrants questioned why so many resources are so centralized within the capital.

The change in requirements in 2013 represented a big policy shift for the Beijing government. From 2001 to 2012, the city had a much more lenient school admissions policy in place for migrant students. It allowed school admission to children who met two criteria: their parents had worked in Beijing for more than six months and they did not have guardians available in their hometowns. Kids in these circumstances received a temporary residence permit so they could attend a local school. Official data shows that this policy had been in place for nearly a decade before any huge influx of students occurred; it wasn’t until 2010 that the capital started seeing the number of elementary school students shoot up by 10,000 to 20,000 each year.

“This indicates that the post-2010 wave of students was not due to the loose admission policy, but to the 2008 Olympic Games baby boom and migrant worker demographics – 90 percent of those who moved to Beijing are aged 16 to 59, so their children tend to be school-age,” said Lin Bao, a deputy researcher at the Institute of Population and Labor Economics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 

Many analysts, including Lin, believe that population growth in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai will continue in the long term due to those cities’ abundant resources, so simple and crude administrative measures targeting migrant workers will not be as effective in controlling the population as government officials might expect.

The data back this up. A report from Beijing-based Caixin magazine, for example, revealed that after a local private school for migrant students was demolished, although 85 percent of its former students returned home, nearly all of their parents stayed in Beijing because of the better job opportunities. By contrast, a recent Peking University survey on the education of disadvantaged children showed that nearly 70 percent of children without a Beijing hukou did not vacate the capital even after they had to leave school for various reasons; in 2015, it was nearly 73 percent.

Instead of attempting to control the population through a single aspect of governance, such as education or housing, many analysts favor transferring an entire city function, from top to bottom, to Beijing’s surrounding area. Xu He, director of the environment appraisal center of Tianjin-based Nankai University, even suggested moving eight Chinese ministries out of the capital.

“We should also notice that the pressure from overpopulation is not only related to the growth of the migrant population, but also to the demographics – over 21 percent of the population with a Beijing hukou are over 60 years old, while [more than 90 percent] of the migrant population is under 60,” Lin Bao added.

Some other analysts think Beijing is not suffering from over-urbanization, arguing that the capital could support an even bigger population than planned, given its size and resources.

“The student-teacher ratio is not as low as the media reports have said,” wrote Fu Weigang, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, in an online commentary for the Chinese version of the Financial Times. “For example, the number of elementary schools in Beijing dropped from 2,867 in 1995 to 1,093 in 2013, and the number of teachers also reduced by about 20,000 during this same period of time. The reason for this decrease was a lack of students.” In his opinion, the education system is akin to the transportation system: If you have more passengers on the subway, the subway’s cost per passenger greatly decreases, and similarly, more students in the Beijing school system reduces per student expenditure.

Yang Dongping, director of the NGO 21st Century Education Research Institute and a member of the State-run consultative commission on education, cited similar data in a commentary for NewsChina on migrant children’s education. “We need to create a system to help migrant children enjoy the same rights as locals..., a system in which the central, provincial and local governments all share the financial burden of migrant students’ education.”

“It is better for both the government and the residents of Beijing to accommodate migrant workers and make them more educated, rather than marginalizing them and fueling their resentment toward the city,” he warned. “If cities shortsightedly deprive migrant children of an education as a means to control the population, the consequences will undoubtedly be dangerous.” 

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