“So China has private high schools while the United States has the socialist system!” my Chinese colleagues exclaimed when I described our free K—12 schooling a decade ago. I am still puzzled by Americans who are startled by this observation because aside from incidental book fees, etc., America has long invested in our children’s education as a public good that provides advantages to us all.
Before the 1949 revolution, primarily the rich could afford to send their boys to a private school to be tutored by a scholar. After 1949, education was to be offered to all children as fast as the schools could be expanded. Everyone was equal, which is to say that everyone was equally poor. Before the mid-1990s, China’s schools had been free right through college. In 1993, I watched at East China Normal University in Shanghai as morning classes ended as a sea of students took their hot water thermoses, bowls and chopsticks and flooded into the cafeteria for a meal of rice and vegetables.
Up until then, China had too few schools and colleges. Everyone was supposed to get a 9th-grade education. That remained difficult in the poor countryside. Only the top few percent who scored highest on the leaving exams could enter college. Classrooms were the basic minimum: an old blackboard, worn furniture and a professor who rationed his or her precious chalk. There were too many students and too few teachers. You got to university classes early or you stood at the back because the seats were full.
China solved their need to expand and modernize schooling by charging full tuition for the senior high school (grades 10-12) and all colleges. Chinese value their child’s education above having enough to eat. In the developing areas, that surge of tuition money financed an overnight transformation of China’s schools. The government built new schools but the ongoing operation of the schools was driven by tuition. It was a financial burden to keep one child in high school, over US$4000 per year. For the eight percent of minorities who had never been bound by the one child policy, this was too expensive. In the poor countryside, grandparents and parents pooled their money to pay tuition for the one child who would someday be their social security.
The comment above--about China having a private school system--was made following this new tuition system. Truly, this privatization of upper level schooling has underpinned China’s amazing progress building a middle class twice the size of middle class America.
But a portion of China’s population is still living poor in the countryside. Imagine having one-fourth of the U.S. population living like 1930s Appalachia (no water, no electricity) alongside a modernizing China that is achieving the American standard of living. This dramatic income disparity produces no significant social unrest because poverty is seen to be a consequence of lack of an education. As long as all children have the opportunity to get a good education, this gap between the rich and the poor is not seen as an injustice. But many teachers in the countryside schools are not qualified and country students do not have the same opportunity to get a good education.
When I lecture at China’s teachers colleges, I get to talk with their young student teachers. They are adamantly not going back to the countryside to teach. Before I leave, there is often a final banquet attended by the Party Secretary. As the foreign guest, I get to ask questions: “There is a shortage of teachers in the countryside. What are you doing about it?”
“We offer free college scholarships to rural students who will go back and teach in the countryside for ten years,” comes the answer.
“Yes, but I asked the students and most will not go back to the hardship and low pay. So nine out of 10 of your scholarships are not taken,” I respond.
“Well, we also have this Westward Expansion Programme where college students go teach, like your Peace Corps,” is the next answer.
“I talk with some who have done this. They are young college students, untrained, and you need two million of them and only some thousands go,” I counter.
“Well, we really are out of options,” comes the final admission, and the Secretary asks me “What should we do?”
This is China’s problem and I have no answer. Indeed, the United States is facing a growing shortage of teachers as well, also worse in our rural schools, and we have no easy fix for our shortage either.
Therefore I was jaw-dropping amazed when I arrived again at Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University this week and discovered that the Province of Shaanxi is going to eliminate the tuition for senior high school students starting this coming fall. Instead of paying over US$4000 for the year, there will be a US$300 fee, similar to our book fees. This applies to just this one province, not the whole country. Shaanxi is relatively prosperous and is led by a progressive government in Xi’an. The implications are good, especially for the poor families, the minorities with many children, and those Han Chinese who do have more than one child (and there are many). And over time, this will help to equalize the opportunity for rural students to get a fair education.
I am not used to such political support for education. I am from Kansas.