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The Paradox of China's Struggling Rural Educational System - 2002-06-12

China is expanding rural tax reforms to help relieve poverty among hundreds of millions of farmers. In Gansu Province in northwestern China, the biggest cuts will be in educational taxes. But schools in this region are already starved of resources, and offer children little hope of improving their lives.

Zhang Shuqin hates the rain. It leaks through gaping holes in the wooden ceiling of her classroom for first and second-grade children.

The 29-year-old teacher said she tries to squeeze her six and seven-year-old students into dry corners of the mud brick room. But when the rain is heavy, they can not avoid getting wet.

Ms. Zhang is the sole teacher in Zhong Pai village, a collection of dirt huts in the remote mountains of northwestern China.

First-grade children sit on the left side of the unlit and decrepit room, and second-grade students sit on the right. Ms. Zhang who has a high school diploma - teaches them mathematics and language every day, plus one art and music class a week.

She said her salary is less than five dollars a month, not enough to live on, she complains. She often gets paid late, and said she has not yet received last month's wage. Ms. Zhang, her husband and two children grow the food they eat, and rely mainly on her husband's income from odd jobs to pay expenses.

No one else wants this job, she said, and the school is so remote, that the local government does not care about it. Ms. Zhang strokes the head of a six-year-old boy grinning at his desk and says this is her son. "He is the reason I am willing to teach here," she said.

The grim conditions at this village school are by no means unique. According to a recent report by brokerage firm CLSA Emerging Markets, China ranks near the bottom of all countries in per capita spending on education. It also said four million rural students drop out of school each year because their parents cannot afford educational fees. Less than two-thirds of Chinese students in the countryside finish primary school.

The government is trying to overhaul its rural tax system, to help reduce farmer poverty, and allow more families to send their children to school.

Zhang Xiaoping, deputy head of the Wenxian county tax reform office, said starting in July, educational fees here will be halved. Mr. Zhang said many children do not attend school because their families can not afford the fees. Primary school students are charged almost $50 a year, and high school students pay more than $70 a year. By contrast, incomes here average just $55 a year.

Mr. Zhang said the tax reforms will significantly reduce the burden on families. But ask how the local government will make up for the sharp cut in its tax revenue, and he struggles to respond.

Mr. Zhang admitted the budget will be tight after the tax cuts are in place. The central government has promised to make up some of the shortfall. He does not yet know how much money it will provide, but he said Beijing has promised to keep the schools functioning normally.

Reduced fees may enable more families to send their children to school, but it is hard to see how the already cash-strapped schools will be improved by funding cuts.

The best primary school in the area - Dongyukou school - was re-built in 2000 not by the local government, but by a charity called Project Hope. The group's sponsor is the China Youth Development Foundation, which is mired in controversy over allegedly diverting donations into speculative investments. The foundation is undergoing an audit.

The children attending Dongyukou school enjoy government-trained teachers, new facilities and textbooks.

Zhang Kaiwen, the school director, said children from villages for many kilometers around have flocked here because of the low fees. Since the school was renovated two years ago, the student body has grown from one hundred to more than 400.

Mr. Zhang said the classes now are overcrowded, and points to one third-grade classroom with more than 60 children squeezed together.

Some of the local teachers hired to cope with the explosion in students are paid just $10 a month. That is 12 times less than government-appointed teachers with the same qualifications.

Several kilometers away, along crumbling mountain paths, the sole teacher at Zhong Pai village nods when asked if she knows about the new school built with charity funds.

Ms. Zhang said Dongyukou school is too far away for her six-year-old son to attend right now. But if he is lucky enough to get in when he is older, she said she will not teach anymore because she makes too little money. Asked what would happen to the students here, she shrugs her shoulders in silence.