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After decades of rising school fees, rural Chinese parents finally get relief

SHENGOU, China—Last year, farmer Wu Lianxiang paid the equivalent of more than $50 for her children's elementary school fees, a staggering burden worth nearly two months' income for her poor family.

This year, she's paying a little over $7.

"I'm very happy," Wu said. "This year, we can save the money."

With a stroke of a pen a few weeks ago, in a move to address soaring grievances in the countryside, Premier Wen Jiabao struck down most fees for compulsory education for grades one to nine in rural areas of western China. By the end of 2007, rural schools throughout China will be largely free.

The measure is bringing joy to places such as Shengou (Deep Ditch), a dusty village in the arid and rugged hills of Gansu province in China's far west. Farmers here can earn as little as $200 a year.

Rising education and health care costs are the top reasons for poverty in rural China, where some 750 million of the nation's 1.3 billion citizens live. Moreover, rural families dedicate as much as a third of their income for school fees. So experts are hailing the recent move as a watershed moment.

"It's a historic reform. It's the first step toward implementing truly free compulsory education in China," said Wang Rong, the Berkeley-trained head of graduate studies in education economics at Peking University.

At the two-story Shengou Elementary School, parents of the 80 or so children rejoice at the break they're getting, and teachers say they're no longer burdened by the hardships of poor parents.

"They often defaulted on paying school fees before, even for as long as one year," said teacher Hua Yonggui.

It's no wonder that these families struggle. Rain is rare, and dust storms sweep in frequently from Mongolia. Most families grow wheat or sesame on small plots. Small flocks of sheep forage in valleys not yet denuded of vegetation.

Yet children at the local school show enthusiasm for their classes, greeting a rare visitor with enthusiasm.

The school now expects the central government—not parents—to pick up costs for such things as the eight tons of coal it needs each winter. It offers textbooks free to all but the rare well-off child, and it charges parents only for notebooks, at about $1.25 per student per semester.

In a speech on March 5, Premier Wen said the government was allotting $27.2 billion over five years to "completely eliminate tuition and miscellaneous fees for all rural students" in what he described as an "important milestone" for Chinese education.

For decades, China set a good example for developing countries, offering largely free education. The literacy rate soared to 91 percent for those over age 15, comparable to developed countries, according to the government's figures. But by the early 1980s, as the country veered from state control to free markets, collectives that ran village schools and health clinics were largely dismantled. Financing was shunted to parents and the local township governments, which often faced financial crises.

Since 1986, when the government ordered compulsory education for grades one through nine, many poor rural families endured rising school costs, even as China's per capita spending on education fell to the lowest level of any Asian country.

Laws permitted schools to dun parents for expenses such as drinking water, coal for heating, lighting, repairs, telephone bills and chalk. Surcharges mounted.

Horizon Research, a national polling firm, said in early February that 40 percent to 50 percent of 4,128 people it had surveyed said tuition fees were the biggest expenditures for their families, higher than health care, and the primary reason for their poverty.

The impact of soaring fees on school attendance isn't clear. Zhou said China has 108.6 million primary school students, with a 1 percent dropout rate, and 62.1 million junior high school students, with a 5 percent dropout rate. Some experts doubt those figures, since dropout rates appear much higher in rural areas.

At the high school level, costs remain a huge burden, forcing millions of students to drop out. In many cases, families go into debt to pay for the education of children.

In Wolong, a Sichuan province mountain settlement in southwest China, Zhou Qunying said she pays about $750 a year for her daughter in junior high school and her son in high school.

"I should have a much better life. But I have to pay tuition. I don't even buy clothes," Zhou said.

Back in Gansu province, the drop in school fees coincides with a 50 percent rise in the price of fertilizer, triggered by world oil price increases. So for many peasant families, the savings are eaten up by the fertilizer demands of their wheat fields.

Education has been at the forefront since the National People's Congress, a largely rubber-stamp legislature, and an advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress, began their annual sessions on March 5. Demands have emerged to boost education spending far above current levels.

"More than 100 countries in the world don't charge students these kinds of fees. This is what responsible governments should try to achieve," said Zhu Yongxin, the vice mayor of the city of Suzhou who's been calling for free education since 2003.

Meanwhile, the central government also is pledging to resolve a huge problem of unpaid back wages for rural teachers and send better-prepared teachers to the countryside.

China has about 500,000 rural non-certified teachers in its 12 western provinces. Many earn less than $100 a month and are only junior high school graduates. The China Daily newspaper in December said teachers are owed $1.24 billion in back pay.

"We will try our best to improve the social status and payment package for our rural teachers," Zhou, the education minister, promised in late February.

"The compulsory education in rural areas will enjoy a fundamental change."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-EDUCATION

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