Class wars

A new policy for Beijing schools hits property prices

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama participates in a language class with pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington

Michelle visited schools in China

How to devise a system that ensures every child has a fair chance of getting into a good primary school?

This is the dilemma faced by Beijing and many of China’s other cities. The problem is this: the best schools in China are state schools and while they are supposed to educate children in their local area, many of the good ones take children from outside their proper catchment zones if their parents are willing to pay illicit fees or donate expensive equipment.

This means that local kids without well-off parents get squeezed out.

According to a report in Century Weekly, less than half of Beijing children now go to school in the local area in which the live.

So the city government has reissued rules stating that children must attend schools in their own neighbourhoods. Regulations like this have been published before but the perserverance of Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign seems to have people taking the promulgation more seriously this time. As a result, housing prices in the catchment zones of the better schools have surged since news of the change emerged in February.

The Legal Evening News cited WoAiWoJia, one of China’s biggest realtors, as saying that the price of so called “school apartments” in Beijing had risen 12.5% over the past two months – a much faster rate than the rest of the city.

The New Express reported that houses near good schools in Guangzhou – another of the 19 cities to announce that the rules had to be obeyed – had seen price increases of as much as 30%.

Despite the good intentions, officials charged with enforcing the rules have come in for criticism. The main concern is that wealthy parents will continue to throw money at the problem, simply buying houses near the best schools.

“This policy will make the problem of high house prices near schools worse and cause inequality in education to get worse. When only rich people can afford to buy a house in a district where there is a good school, then poor people will be squeezed out,” the China Youth Daily warned.

Instead the government should be investing more in education and improving standards across the board, the newspapers agreed.

Of course, some schools, especially those with the strongest reputations and wealthier student bodies, find it easier to attract better teachers and offer better facilities.

The Washington Post recently went on a tour of Beijing’s prestigious Jingshan school and reported that it had a one-storey-high telescope for astronomy class, flat-screen televisions in every classroom, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and even a state-of-the-art hydroponics garden.

The newspaper also recounted the case of a father who was asked to provide a new school elevator as the price of his son’s admission.

In contrast to many other countries, fee-paying schools in China are often seen as inferior – and only for children who couldn’t get into the elite state institutions or else for the offspring of migrant workers without access to a hukou (the registration permit that allows children access to city education).

Ironically, it’s the less wealthy and those lacking personal connections who probably have to pay more for their children to get a decent education. Prices are said range from about $5,000 to get into a reasonably good school in Beijing – provided you have all the grades and live at the right address – to more than $100,000 if the school needs to make an exception in the child’s case.

Some parents are opting out of this dilemma altogether, by homeschooling, sending their kids overseas or just hoping for the best at an average school.

“You go to a great school, then to Peking or Tsinghua universities, then you end up working for those people who didn’t even finish primary school – so what’s the point?” was the dismissive verdict of one weibo contributor.

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