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China Cracks Down on Migrant Schools

May 7, 2002

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SHANGHAI, China (AP) _ Since police closed his school, 13-year-old Jiang Lei has gone from A-student to trash scavenger. Jiang’s only education now comes from books he occasionally unearths in his daily hunt for cardboard, bottles and other recyclables to sell.

``I don’t understand all the words, but I want to learn more,″ said the soft-spoken youth, wearing a dirty green-and-white jacket that used to be his school uniform.

His was one of 21 privately run schools for children of migrant workers shut down by authorities in Shanghai, China’s largest city, in a single day last August. Jiang said a cordon of police barred the way for him and his classmates.

Chinese children like Jiang are part of the nation’s ``floating population″ of more than 100 million poor migrants. Their parents do urban China’s hardest, dirtiest and lowest-paying work.

Cities like Shanghai are closing migrant schools as part of efforts to stem a flood of poor workers from rural areas.

Government officials contend they are only trying to protect children from dirty, unsafe school environments.

But educational experts and human rights groups warn the heavy-handed tactics and lack of educational alternatives could condemn whole generations of already disadvantaged migrant children to low-paying, low-skill jobs.

``Poverty and discrimination make migrant children one of the most vulnerable groups in society. But the government has decided to leave them to fend for themselves,″ said Wang Libing, an education researcher at Zhejiang University in the southeastern city of Hangzhou.

At least a half-dozen other cities _ including Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen _ have shut down schools, according to a report released Tuesday by Human Rights in China, which is based in New York.

The group said the closures and other policies aimed at stemming migration are depriving 1.8 million children of an education.

Afraid of crime and swamped social services, China’s cities treat migrants as unwelcome intruders. Their children are effectively denied access to public schools by special annual fees for migrants of up to $1,250 _ many times the annual earnings for most.

Experts say at least 1,000 private schools have appeared across China to educate migrant children. Most are run by former migrants and charge only $100 a year in tuition. They range from small classes in private apartments to full-scale operations with hundreds of students, uniforms and school buses.

Last year, Shanghai said it counted 519 such schools with 120,000 students _ about a quarter of the city’s estimated half million migrant children. But officials have refused to license them.

Experts and officials say Shanghai has closed at least 70 schools over the last three years, including all those in the industrial district where Jiang, the former student, lives.

Beijing closed 50 schools last fall, according to the Human Rights in China report.

The Hope School that Jiang attended reopened three months later in a different neighborhood too far away for him to commute.

The combined elementary and middle school’s 300 students now occupy the top floor of a former furniture warehouse. It has sloppily painted walls and mismatched desks, but is otherwise indistinguishable from many Chinese public schools.

Textbooks are the same as those used in Shanghai’s school system. Patriotic slogans hang above blackboards. The dozen teachers all taught at public schools in Anhui, a poor rural eastern province that produced many migrants, including school founder Wang Kuodong.

The school has been shut down three times in the three years since Wang opened it. Each time, he reopened by changing neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, Wang was warned he may be shut down for a fourth time. Already $12,500 in debt from previous moves, he said he may not try to open again.

``We are just doing our best to teach migrant children. Why does the government want to kill us off?″ fumed the 31-year-old Wang, himself a former migrant construction worker.

Shanghai education officials refused repeated interview requests. But last month, The Associated Press attended a meeting between Wang and other school owners and officials of the Shanghai district where his school is located.

The officials told them at least half of their 32 schools would be closed. They said the crackdown was necessary because of the poor quality of instruction and hazards to students, such as exposed electrical wiring, dirty drinking water and dim lighting.

``Your fifth-graders couldn’t pass a third-grade exam at public schools. We can’t believe you are taking good care of those children as you say,″ Dachang district Communist Party Secretary Zhu Jinzhong told the meeting.

The owners were given no chance to respond. But at one point, Zhu conceded that the city has no alternative plans for educating migrant children, who he said outnumber children of legal residents in Dachang district.

``Where did so many children come from?″ the visibly frustrated official said.

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