Lesson Unlearned

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Despite a gritty haze that blankets the hardscrabble hills just north of Beijing, things were looking bright for the Luo family. Their 10-year-old son Dejun had just entered the fourth grade, more schooling than his mother and father ever attained. His teacher even honored him as the second-best calligrapher in his class. But Dejun's accomplishment won't be celebrated by the Chinese government. Last year his parents pulled him out of school because they couldn't pay the $28 a semester in tuition and fees. And with that, Dejun, now 12, ceased to exist officially. That's because, according to the local government, there are no primary-school dropouts in the greater capital area. In fact, Beijing claims 98.9% of elementary-school age children nationwide are happily enrolled--a feat that nearly meets an ambitious government target set a decade ago of universal primary-school enrollment by the end of the 20th century. Last year, Beijing even asked the country's most successful charity, Project Hope, to redirect its efforts from building elementary schools and enrolling young children to focusing on middle-school attendance. We were told that the problem of primary-school enrollment was solved, says Gan Dongyu, deputy director of the China Youth Development Foundation, which runs Project Hope. We have a different mission now.
The reality is not so upbeat. The official primary-school enrollment figure doesn't factor in two major groups: children of illegal migrant laborers, who number in the tens of millions, and unregistered second or third children of families that don't hew to China's one-child policy. Besides, the government monitors children only when they begin school--it doesn't count those who drop out after a few years or those who attend only when farmland lies fallow in the winter. That means a child who starts first grade is effectively counted as having completed all six years of primary education. There is little incentive for school officials to report dropouts: both student and teacher can be fined for failing the school system.

China's educational record in the years following the birth of the People's Republic was undeniably impressive. Before 1949, only 20% of primary-school age children were enrolled and 80% of the population was illiterate. Less than a decade later, however, a nationwide campaign helped millions of peasants learn to read, and a special effort was made to get girls into the classroom. Then came the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The country's schools still haven't recovered. Today China is 145th out of 153 nations in terms of per-capita education spending, according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Only 2.5% of the country's GNP goes to education, while at least 14% is funneled into the military.

With disillusionment over China's lagging educational commitment reaching the top echelons of power, Premier Zhu Rongji vowed two years ago to raise funding to 4% of GNP by 2000. That would match the average educational allocation of other developing countries in Asia. But Zhu's promise was short-lived. Although the government has continued to pay lip service to the importance of educating its young, the financial pledge was abandoned just a year later amid a slowing economy. Slogans themselves don't change anything, says the China Youth Development Foundation's Gan. We need to make a long-term commitment to education.

Already, some parents are losing faith in schooling as a way out of grueling poverty. Rising middle- and high-school fees mean that even if poor students work hard, they still have little chance of continuing past sixth grade, after which tuition generally soars. A shortage in the number of university places also ensures that only 8.3 Chinese out of 10,000 possess college degrees, compared with levels of more than twice that in India. And with the implosion of the state sector, even university graduates aren't guaranteed jobs. Children who once dreamed of passing crucial middle-school exams now count on get-rich-quick schemes in boom towns like Shenzhen. There's a breakdown of the old Confucian order, says Maki Hayashikawa, education officer for UNESCO in Beijing. People are starting to believe that education just doesn't pay off. What's the point of sending your child to primary school?

The shift in priorities has hit China's vast countryside the hardest. When Beijing began to phase out central government education subsidies more than a decade ago, it turned fiscal responsibility over to local authorities. Many village headmen took this as an irresistible opportunity to line their own pockets and concocted a slew of school charges. Semi-private education watchdogs estimate that more than one-quarter of such fees are unwarranted, including everything from mandatory snacks and colored chalk to abacuses that never actually materialize. The miscellaneous costs have forced millions of children from the classroom.

Those who are able to pay the fees still aren't guaranteed an adequate education. Well-constructed schools and trained teachers are in short supply. In northeastern Hebei province, Wang Zengfa's 19 students were evacuated from their dirt-floor classroom late last year when the roof beams almost buckled on top of them. Now, the students, ranging in age from kindergarten to fourth grade, congregate in the village head's office. The unfinished walls are decorated with portraits of Marx, Stalin and other communist stalwarts. There is a blackboard, but chalk is scarce. Besides, on cloudy days it's often too dark inside the room to see anything written on the board.

To make matters worse, in many isolated hamlets, some instructors don't even possess high-school degrees, much less certificates from teachers' colleges. The government takes them because most better-educated teachers won't accept salaries that can drop to as low as $20 a month. When I'm in the classroom, I'm a teacher, says the 46-year-old Wang, who tills the family farm to supplement his meager government income. But all other times, I'm just a farmer. A study last year by the Educational Workers' Trade Union found that two-thirds of teachers in 125 counties and cities were owed back pay totaling $85 million.

Yet many instructors still carry on. Yu Guoping has been teaching in the scrappy Hebei village of Longwangshui for three decades. Each year there are students who can't afford the $15-a-semester tuition. When a drought hit the region last year, there were two such children. This year the price of fruit plunged, and there are three. So the 53-year-old teacher has taken to paying their tuition out of his own pocket. Maybe the country has given up on them, says Yu. But this is my village, and these are my people. We have to make sure they get some schooling.

Most kids on the margin aren't so lucky. At the garbage dump on the edge of Zhongyushudian village, Dejun and another elementary-school dropout kill time by trapping sparrows, kicking up dust clouds and dreaming impossible dreams. I want to join the army, says Dejun, blinking hard from the particles of dirt settling on his eyelashes. But to do that, he will need more schooling. We are proud because he has done more than his mother and me, says father Luo Shilong. But today you need more than just fourth grade. Dejun may have surpassed his parents, but with the years when he should be in school slipping by, he's the one who is being left in the dust.