Schools can’t rely on heroic headmasters alone

By James Palmer Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-22 16:43:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The tragically young death of Mo Zhengao, a Guangxi high school headmaster who raised funds for over 10,000 impoverished rural schoolchildren to continue their studies, on March 15 caused widespread mourning. Mo, just 58 when he unexpectedly died, dedicated virtually every moment of his spare time to fund-raising for students and built his high school, located in a harsh mountainous region, into a nationally recognized institute that sent many students to top universities.

But Mo was just one example of the tens of thousands of people whose self-sacrifice and good work props up China's rural education system. They scrounge for funds, look for volunteers to help teach, fix holes in school roofs themselves, and live on tiny incomes. Some of them have been celebrated in the media, especially when they die.  Most go unnoticed, their efforts heeded only by former students or appreciative parents.

Others help. There are literally hundreds of rural education charities founded by well-meaning, high-earning urbanites who visit a village and are appalled to find ramshackle schools and moth-eaten textbooks. But the sheer number of these groups, and the underdeveloped and opaque nature of the Chinese charity sector, makes many of them limited or inefficient; they often last only a few years.

Ultimately, rural schoolchildren can't rely on charity, much less on every teacher following Mo's example. One fundamental problem is that trained teachers simply don't want to live in remote villages, especially on the tiny salaries available. Even government-sponsored programs that send university graduates to the countryside for two or three years with a substantial bonus are ultimately ineffective, because so few of them stay after their term is up.

The most urgent problem, however, is simple funding. Education is supposed to be free up to junior middle school, but students over 15 have to pay. This causes many to drop out, up to a third in some areas, and has produced a major education gap between urban and rural areas, with many rural students lacking that critical three years. It was this funding void that Mo was trying to fill by private charity. Yet many headteachers are not so kind; some schools attempt to extort parents by charging exaggerated "uniform fees" or using other tricks to get money.

The number of uneducated children may be even higher than the official statistics show. The last two decades have seen the disappearance of working-age young people from the countryside, as villages empty out leaving only the old and the very young behind. But children once "left behind" are increasingly moving with their parents into urban areas, where they have no access to public schooling due to lacking a local hukou (residence permit). Many charitable institutions have sprung up to cover the gap, but sadly, so have many predators who charge parents for sub-standard schools.

Providing good schooling for all is not just a moral question. Even during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), China's elementary schools kept functioning, providing the basis for the relatively educated, literate, trained workforce that gave the country a huge boost in the 1980s and 1990s. With China's labor no longer cheap, it more than ever needs to be skilled.

Even raising salaries may not be enough to lure teachers out to the countryside. Instead, the focus is already on larger and more unified schools in more developed towns that draw students from a wider area. The critical point here will be providing free, safe transport needed to get students from A to B; a rash of school bus accidents in recent years has prompted a reevaluation of such services.

Heroic efforts like Mo's should be applauded, but ultimately the responsibility falls on the government. With local authorities already strapped for cash, this is one area where the central government should lead financially. Plans are already underway for severe reform of the hukou system, which will help with the rural-urban gap. But another priority should be expanding existing pilot programs that fund high school students until education is truly free for everyone up to 18, the norm among middle-income countries like China.

The author is an editor with the Global Times.

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