July 24th, 2012 | Global Times Education for all
A plan to open up governmentrun kindergartens for children from noncivil servant families has divided public opinion in Guangzhou, putting a spotlight on the country’s high demand for quality education against a backdrop of unevenly distributed educational resources.
Despite concerns by government employees that highquality but affordable public preschool education may become accessible to too many people as a result of this policy, public sentiment has overwhelmingly been supportive of the move, saying that true education equality means civil servants should not receive any special privileges.
As reforms aimed at dismantling government privileges inch forward, some analysts remain cautious on whether the initiative will eventually benefit a wider crosssection of the general public.
Kindergartens pried open
The Guangzhou education bureau issued a notice on July 10 regarding enrollment into public kindergartens, saying institutions which receive financial support from the government would be required to set aside vacancies for members of the public.
According to the circular, which was open for public consultation from July 10 to 19, kindergartens funded by educational departments or government agencies should allot 70 percent of their enrollment quota to the public in 2013, with that proportion increasing to no less than 90 percent by 2016.
It also stated that kindergartens affiliated with Stateowned enterprises should be open to outsiders when vacancies for employees’ children have been ensured.
The citywide drive came following a pilot program in Panyu district, where three governmentrun kindergartens were required to spare 30 percent of their seats for equal competition, the proportion of which is expected to reach 50 percent by next year.
Li Jia, a deputy director of the Panyu district education bureau, said they encountered some difficulties at the beginning of the reform process, when some civil servants asserted that these kindergartens were designated for their children and questioned the reallocation by means of a lottery, reported the Southern Metropolis Daily.
“The change heralds positive reform,” Zeng Dexiong, a scholar with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, who is also a municipal legislator, told the Global Times.
Zeng dubbed such kindergartens, which are funded by certain government agencies and exclusively open for children of employees with the department as “unique products of the planned economy era,” adding that reform in this area is inevitable under a market economy.
The reform in Guangzhou came at a time when the municipal government was on the receiving end of public criticism for its lavish allocation of funds to facilities with government backgrounds, commonly known as jiguan kindergartens in China.
A budget draft submitted to local legislative body earlier this year showed that the budgets for eight jiguan kindergartens, all affiliated with municipal government departments, amounted to about 835 million yuan ($130.73 million), fuelling heated controversy.
“It’s not strange that these kindergartens have drawn sharp criticism since they enjoy massive financial support from taxpayers while only being open to privileged groups. That’s indeed unfair,” said Zeng.
During an online poll initiated by the Daily’s Guangzhou Journal on its Weibo account, more than 90 percent of the participants believed that since funds for jiguan kindergartens are from taxpayers, the facilities should open to all of society, while about 5 percent were of the opposite opinion.
“Education is a public service, which shouldn’t serve certain people. Why are children of civil servants or rich people the only group eligible to attend public schools?” a woman in Guangzhou wrote on a local online community.
These public kindergartens have long been the first choice for parents, given their improved educational environment and resources. Some parents outside the system even pay a huge amount each year as “sponsorship fees” to gain access.
Although he considers the Guangzhou reform a significant step, Zeng said local authorities should make all their resources available for the public instead of reserving some for government officers, to ensure fair distribution.
Chu Zhaohui, a researcher with the China National Institute for Education Research, told the Global Times that the trial in Guangzhou may hopefully spur reform across the country, noting that the situation is far more serious in Beijing.
Demand riding high
The attempt at reform also came at a crucial time, as the country faces a shortage of preschool resources.
It has been reported that many parents nationwide had to line up for days in order to snatch a space in a public school for their children.
“The move in Guangzhou is significant in that it will make public resources be allocated in a more reasonable way,” said Chu, adding that the government should work to avoid situations where children from powerful and wealthy families can enter public kindergartens, and those born in rich families have the chance to study in private preschools while poor children are only able to be taught in “illegal” ones.
He suggested that more funds be injected into preschool education to address the problem from the root, as investment in this field is still limited compared to some other countries.
“Meanwhile, the country needs to strengthen its support to private education powers to ease the pressure,” Chu noted.
As a prototype project for largerscale reform in different fields nationwide, the success of this project depends on the determination of officials, analysts said.
Complaints from some civil servants have indicated that these vested interests groups will be the main obstruction during reforms across the country, as they defend their privileges, said media commentator Shi Yanping.
Shi said that aside from reforms to jiguan kindergartens, reforms to areas such as healthcare and pensions also face the same problems.
“Only if the reformers are determined and bold enough to face misunderstandings and obstruction, can the reforms be pushed forward and deepened to achieve social justice,” Shi added.
By Yang Jinghao