Migrant kids in limbo as Beijing closes schools

AP News
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Posted: Aug 25, 2011 4:58 AM
Migrant kids in limbo as Beijing closes schools

When Ying Dingfa isn't working odd jobs as a plumber or repairman, he's making sure his 10-year-old grandson gets to school on time since both of the boy's parents work around the clock to earn a living.

But the Beijing government's decision to shut about 20 privately run schools for the children of migrant workers could leave more than 10,000 students without classrooms and force people like Ying, 53, and his grandson to return to their home province for a proper education.

"We're making plans to move back to our hometown in Sichuan if our school shuts permanently," said Ying.

Ying and the boy's parents are among tens of thousands of construction laborers, waiters and other migrant workers who help make Beijing run but who are now scrambling to find schools just days ahead of the fall semester.

It is nearly impossible for the children to enter Beijing public schools because their families officially remain residents of their rural hometowns under China's rigid "hukou" residency system _ which turns tens of millions of migrants into second-class citizens and fuels discontent countrywide.

The city government says the poor-quality schools on the outskirts of the capital were shut to give migrant children a better education, but parents, school officials and nonprofit groups say it will push migrants out of the city, and they allege the move is aimed at making way for housing developments.

"Closing inadequate schools is a good thing if the government plans to provide assistance to these families first," said Zhang Zhiqiang, founder of aid group Migrant Workers' Friend. "But what they are doing is unacceptable because these families are left to fend for themselves."

The Beijing government has pulled down or sent orders to shut down the 20 migrant schools since June, citing poor hygiene or unsafe conditions.

Still, Beijing education officials say they are confident displaced students will have a new classroom to go to once the school year starts Sept. 1, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The government has built five new schools further from the city for migrant students. However, they are too far away for many of the families and will not be able to accomodate all of the students who are losing their schools.

Calls to the Beijing Education Work Committee propaganda department rang unanswered.

The Dongba Experimental School in Beijing's Chaoyang District, where Ying's grandson is one of 300 students, has received multiple warnings from the government that it will be demolished later this week if it doesn't close.

Over the last two weeks, the school has functioned on generators after its water and power was shut off, said principal Yang Qi.

"Saying our school is unsafe is just an excuse, because we are willing to make changes to keep the school open," Yang said.

He said officials intend to flatten areas like Dongba in the coming years to build housing because of their relative proximity to the city. Officials have not responded to such allegations.

Dongba's closure will create a problem for Ying and his grandson.

"Getting into a public school is too difficult and costly and other migrant schools are hours away by bike so we have no choice but to go home," Ying said.

The situation highlights Beijing's struggle to improve social welfare for migrant workers, who often face higher medical and school fees and can be cut off from subsidized housing and other social services in places where they work but are not legal residents.

A Beijing residency, or hukou, is needed to send a child to a public school in the capital, or extra fees of $5,000 a year _ more than the average migrant worker makes _ if a school even accepts the student. Private migrant schools cost about $200 a year.

Discontent among migrant workers has prompted violent outbursts nationwide. In June, thousands of rioting factory workers attacked police stations and torched vehicles in the southern province of Guangdong, enraged by the reported beating of a migrant street vendor.

China has said it is serious about providing social services to migrants. In February, Premier Wen Jiabao said in an online chat that the government will send more teachers to rural schools and look at ways to change hukou restrictions to allow migrant farmers to send their children to urban schools.

But the system is still in place.

"Migrants have informal jobs, education, health care, and informal housing ... they live informal lives," said Jonathan Hursh, founder of the Beijing-based nonprofit Compassion for Migrant Children. "A system which allows parents to obtain formal status in their cities more quickly, even a transitional status, would go a long way in helping their children access the education system which already exists."

It is not the first time the government has shut down migrant schools. In 2006, about 70 schools were hastily shut down around Beijing due to safety concerns, but some were later allowed to reopen following public outrage.

Since media reports of the latest closures, four migrant schools told to close in southern Beijing's Daxing district have been reopened with little explanation as to why.

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Follow Chi-Chi Zhang at http://twitter.com/thunderchi