by Xinhua writers Yao Yuan, Xia Xiao
BEIJING, Sept. 26 (Xinhua) -- Rural migrant student Gui Jingjing will be forced to make a difficult choice this year: stay with her parents in Beijing or return to her remote, landlocked home village in southwest China's Sichuan province for further schooling in the custody of her grandparents.
Gui is one of 20 million rural children who have followed their parents to cities. At just 12 years old, she is in her third year of junior high school, three years ahead of her peers.
The Dandelion School where she studies is in a run-down community on the southern outskirts of Beijing. Sponsored by non-governmental organizations, individual and corporate donors, the hardscrabble school offers three years of junior high education exclusively for migrant children like Gui. Most of the teachers are migrants, too.
Gui said she loves the school, its anthem in particular:
"Dandelion, dandelion, flying to the east, flying to the west; floating in the breeze around the world; landing on the ground without a sound... making friends wherever we go, sending down roots wherever we are."
A member of China's "floating population," Gui says she feels like a dandelion herself, uncertain of her next stop.
Although China's household registration system no longer ties residents to their ancestral homes, migrant children like Gui are still not free to attend senior high schools or take college entrance exams outside of their home provinces.
Born and brought up in Beijing, Gui has only faint memories of her hometown. But unless her family can afford the high tuition -- at least 30,000 yuan (4,761 U.S. dollars) a year -- for private schools that are open to students from different origins, the fact that her household registration ties her to Sichuan will likely force her to return there when she finishes junior high school next summer.
Such heavy expenses are certainly out of the question for her parents, who together make no more than 40,000 yuan a year.
Gui said she often dreams of the Shangri-La that fourth-century poet Tao Yuanming described in his poem "Peach Blossom Spring."
"Life in that secluded utopian village was simple and tranquil and everyone was happy," she said. "On top of it, there was no such thing as 'us' and 'them'."
For Gui and her parents, the biggest dilemma is whether she should stay with her parents in Beijing at the risk of dropping out of school, or go back to Sichuan, where she will have to work hard in seclusion for three years in exchange for a much-desired college education.
In China, unbalanced economic growth has led to the uneven allocation of education resources. Different provinces use different textbooks and testing systems. Colleges and universities offer more spots for urban kids -- sometimes for those with lower scores, too.
Students whose household registration ties them to cities like Beijing and Shanghai therefore have more chances to enter top universities than their peers in other provinces.
Matriculation is also easier in far-flung, scarcely-populated places like Gansu and Xinjiang, compared with the more populous provinces of Hubei, Henan and Sichuan.
So for migrant students like Gui, attending senior high school in Beijing may not necessarily be a wise choice. Under the current policy, they have to return to their hometown for the college entrance exam, or "gaokao," in three years -- and are very likely to fail the test, given the different curriculum and testing systems.
Figures provided by the Beijing education commission indicate that about 400,000 migrant children were studying at primary and middle schools in Beijing last year.
Unofficial statistics provided by migrant parents showed that only about 10,000 stayed on for senior high school in Beijing.
The majority of them chose to leave Beijing during junior high in order to adapt to the curriculum of rural schools in their hometowns and prepare for the gaokao.
"Most students leave in the second or third year," said Zhu Xiangyan, who teaches Chinese to third-year students at the Dandelion School.
Of the school's 158 junior high students, at least 40 percent plan to attend senior high school in their home provinces, she said.
Gui and her classmates are pinning their hopes on a new policy that is widely expected to remove barriers and treat them as native Beijingers by allowing them to finish senior high school in Beijing and compete equally in the gaokao.
The policy initiatives, as Education Minister Yuan Guiren put it, ask Chinese cities to formulate plans before the end of this year allowing migrant workers' children to take the gaokao in those cities.
Recent figures show that China has more than 250 million farmers-turned-workers living in cities. An estimated 20 million children have migrated with their parents to the cities, while more than 10 million are left behind in their rural hometowns.
THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY
The massive migration of rural laborers began after China turned from a centrally planned economy to a market economy in 1992. No longer tied to the countryside by a residence-based rationing system for food and other basic supplies, farmers began to take jobs in cities.
A 2003 regulation allowed migrant workers' children to receive nine years of compulsory education in cities where their parents work, removing former restrictions and scrapping extra fees.
But China's compulsory education covers only primary and junior high schools.
"Many of these children are old enough to attend senior high school and wish to enter college," said Yuan.
Migrant children like Gui are often reluctant to leave their parents and the city they love for a strange new environment.
"These teenagers often feel lonely and are very rebellious when left in the care of grandparents or other distant relatives," said Zhu Xiangyan, a teacher at the Dandelion School.
But those who have stayed are in no better condition, said Wang Yan, a school clerk who handles graduation affairs.
Half of Dandelion's graduates have joined their parents in taking low-paid jobs or engaging in vocational training, she said. [ About 40 students were accepted to a private school that promised to exempt tuition for top students, but the competition was very tense.
Many migrant workers have been fighting for equal access to education for their children by signing petitions and visiting education authorities, hoping to negotiate the issue with officials in person.
The Ministry of Education's promise of a policy change came in the wake of repeated pleas from migrant parents and under the pressure of experts, scholars and lawmakers who have sympathized with the migrants.
The new policy, however, has several prerequisites and may not benefit their children after all.
It requires parents to have stable jobs and income, a fixed place of residence and insurance against illness, according to the ministry.
"The threshold is too high -- maybe four or five out of my 600 schoolmates can qualify," said Li Jinting, a third-year student at the Dandelion School.
Li, a top student, will obtain further schooling after returning home to Wenchuan, a county battered by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, because his parents cannot meet the regulation's requirements.
In fact, most parents are temporarily employed by construction sites, restaurants, marketplaces or farms and fall short of the ministry's criteria, said Dandelion's principal and founder Zheng Hong.
"Their jobs are never stable and their employers rarely pay for social welfare programs. They have taken hard, dirty and poorly-paid jobs detested by city dwellers. They deserve respect and their children deserve equal access to the city's education resources."
Many parents worry that the new policy, instead of helping migrants in need, might prompt a flood of new "gaokao migrants": students from wealthy, well-connected families who move or use fake documents to cities where college matriculation is easier.
Urban parents also fear their children may fail in a much more competitive environment, now that nationwide students are ready to share school resources in cities they once considered their own.
Experts say such local protectionism may hinder or postpone the new policy from taking effect.
"Local governments, who care mainly for the interests of local residents, will likely set strict terms and conditions to exclude migrants," said Xiong Bingqi, vice head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute.
Xiong called for deeper reforms in the college admission system at the national level to close the education gap for migrants, including the implementation of universal testing, evaluation and matriculation.
"Fairer matriculation criteria should be worked out and colleges should be encouraged to recruit ideal candidates in a transparent manner. Where a student is from should not matter so much," Xiong said. Enditem
(Additional reporting by Duan Xincen and Hu Xuanzi)