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Schools for Migrant Children Vanishing as Beijing Combats Population Growth

By Huang Ziyi and Han Wei
Zhiquan School in Changping district, Beijing, was demolished on Aug.1. Above is a photo from an abandoned classroom.
Zhiquan School in Changping district, Beijing, was demolished on Aug.1. Above is a photo from an abandoned classroom.

(Beijing) — A campaign to clear away improvised buildings and squatter areas from Beijing’s landscape has left thousands of migrant workers’ children in education limbo, as roaring bulldozers turned their classrooms into rubble.

As the start of the opening of school in September nears, hundreds of students of Zhiquan School and their parents are wrestling with what to do: Their school in the suburban district of Changping in northeast Beijing was torn down on Aug. 1, amid the municipal government’s crackdown on shanty towns in the city’s periphery.

Although Zhiquan had obtained a license in 2004 to become one of the 63 legally registered schools catering to poor migrant families in Beijing, local authorities said they were demolishing it because it was run in an illegal building. The site of Zhiquan will become a meadow, said Zhang Liming, head of the Dongsanqi village.

Authorities asked Zhiquan to move out by the end of July. But the school couldn’t find a suitable and affordable site for its 500 students of grades one through six, according to Qin Jijie, the principal of Zhiqauan.

Low-cost private schools like Zhiquan have thrived in periphery of Beijing as millions of rural farmers over the past two decades flooded into the Chinese capital in search of better jobs.

Most migrant workers earn little, scratching out a living on, for example, construction jobs or selling goods as street vendors. Due to household registration rules, they don’t qualify to send their children to public schools, and could never afford expensive private schools. Schools sprung up to meet the need, but to keep costs down, they had to operate in shabby premises or illegal buildings, staffed with make-do teachers.

打工子弟学校

The ruin of Tuanhe School in Daxing district. The school was shut down and demolished in March, giving way to the new international airport under construction in southern Beijing.

Now those schools are falling to a stepped-up campaign by Beijing authorities rein in population growth to combat pollution and traffic congestion. This year, the Beijing municipal government is targeting 100 villages in the city’s outskirts and plans to demolish 40 million square meters of illegal buildings to give way to grassland and forest.

At least two other migrant schools in Zhiquan’s neighborhood have closed this year, while four of the six schools in Xihongmen village, a migrant worker community in southern Beijing’s Daxing district, have shut down, Caixin found.

Several years ago, there were nearly 500 schools for the children of migrant workers. Now fewer than 100 schools for migrant children have survived rounds of clampdowns in Beijing. Nearly 40 of those may close their doors as municipal authorities make good on their pledge to shut down all unlicensed migrant schools by 2020.

“Migrant schools are the products of history and will eventually be replaced,” said Qin, the principal, who recalls frantically seeking help to try to keep Zhiquan School open.

It is extremely difficult for migrant workers to get their children in Beijing’s public schools. Now migrant parents face a hard choice: send their children home for schooling, or simply stop their education.

Stay or leave

Li Jialiang is one parent who is facing that choice.

Li came for work to Beijing in 2003 from Henan, a province roughly 400 miles to the south. His eldest son was born and raised in Beijing and was to enter sixth grade at Zhiquan School. Now Li will send his son back to Henan to continue his schooling, breaking the family apart.

Getting a spot for his son in a public school in Beijing isn’t realistic.

The city government in 2014 issued a policy requiring children without Beijing hukou--or household registration--to provide at least five extra documents to gain admission to a public primary school. These include parents' working certificates, residency permits, tax slips and documents signed by hometown authorities.

Many migrant workers say it’s difficult to get the required documents. Meanwhile, another rule prevents non-Beijing students—those without hukou--from taking exams required to enter senior high school in the city.

A 2014 survey found that the country has about 61 million "left-behind children"– those left alone or with relatives while parents leave home to find work. Being separated from their parents can be emotionally devastating to children, experts say.

About 30% of students in Jiugong’s migrant schools were sent back home after their schools were demolished, while the rest went to other migrant schools, an education official of Jiugong town in Daxing district said rough statistics suggest.

Han Jialing, a researcher specializing in migrant education at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said as more migrant schools are closed, these children “will either become left-behind children, or quit school.”

Cheng Hong, a migrant worker who sends her two children to Haidi School in Jiuhong, agonizes over what may be ahead for her family. “I don’t want my kids to become left-behind children who can’t see their parents for a year,” said Cheng. But Haidi School faces being closed. She said parents worry about talking to their children, for fear of frightening them about their future.

On the margins

Migrant schools were originally created to try to keep families together.

Shandong farmer Zhang Gezhen moved to Beijing in 1991. When his daughter reached school age, Zhang couldn’t get her admitted to Beijing public schools. In the 1990s, Beijing primary schools offered very few seats to non-Beijing students and charged tens of thousands of yuan in extra fees for their admission—an unaffordable barrier for most migrant families.

In 1995, Zhang rented an old courtyard in northern Beijing and recruited nine teachers to set up a school to serve migrant children like his daughter. With no voiced objection from local regulators, the school admitted 53 students, who paid 120 yuan for their study each month.

Zhang’s Mingyuan School expanded quickly. It opened as many as 14 subsidiaries schools in the following year and accepted more than 40,000 students, Zhang said. In 2003, Mingyuan School became Beijing’s first licensed migrant school.

Han, the researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said migrant schools thrived in Beijing in late 1990s alongside rising demand for such affordable education. Beijing government statistics show that migrant population in the city reached 2.9 million in 1997, and nearly 20% of those migrants had lived in the city for more than three years.

For a long time, private-run migrant schools operated in a gray legal zone at best and relied on local governments’ tolerance to expand, Han said. At the end of 2002, 350 migrant schools were open in Beijing.

Beijing authorities began looking more closely at migrant schools in 2003 in the wake of a new law. Between 2003 and 2006, a number of schools found to be of poor quality were shut down, while 63 qualified schools--including Zhiquan and Mingyuan--were licensed and given legal status. But the regulator’s attitude toward migrant schools swiftly changed, and no new licenses were issued. That left other schools in limbo, according to operators of migrant schools.

A document from Changping district government seen by Caixin showed that as of April 2016, 27 unlicensed migrant schools were operating in the district, with 8,600 students.

As Beijing’s campaign to control the city’s population has accelerated since 2006, it has gotten tougher for migrant schools to operate. Things got especially difficult beginning in 2014, when a series of policies shut down hundreds of markets run by migrant workers as well as migrant schools serving their children.

Beijing’s population has ballooned from 10.1 million in 2000 to 21.7 million in 2016, according to government census. At least 8 million of those residents are migrant workers without Beijing hukou. In a draft urban plan released in late March, the municipal government said it wanted to cap the city’s population, including migrant workers who stay in the capital for at least six months, at 23 million in 2020.

Surging education spending is another concern for local authorities to expand public school access to migrant children. Under Beijing’s policy, district and county level authorities cover a major part of education spending is their region, making districts with the most migrant children like Daxing and Changping feel the crunch, according to Han.

Now, only one Mingyuan school exists in Jiugong. It and Haidi School were the only ones to survive of the 12 that once operated in the town, according to Zhang.

Demolition and policy uncertainties hang over most migrant schools. Zhiquan’s Qin said his school has survived several campaigns in the past, but had to relocate twice.

“Everything had been smooth in the first couple of years since we opened the school,” Qin said. “But the forced relocations have made it harder for us to operate, and we lost nearly two-thirds of the students when we first moved in 2014.”

Uncertainties have made it tougher for operators of migrant schools to invest more in facilities and teachers, said a person at a non-governmental organization focusing on rural education. “No matter whether they are licensed or not, they haven’t received legal protection to make their education operations consistent,” the person said.

“The current system makes migrant school a short-term business. Without enough funding, a school will find it difficult to resume after a demolition,” said Han, the researcher.

Many operators of migrant schools said they are exhausted from frequent shutdowns and relocations, and plan to quit the business. Zhang said he would not open a new school if the remaining Mingyuan School in Jiugong is forced to close.

Like Qin and many other operators, Zhang said he felt from the beginning that migrant schools would disappear sooner or later. He said he is upset that a government-backed solution isn’t in place to help migrant schoolchildren.

Contact reporter Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com)

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