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Backdoor education (2)

(Global Times)

13:56, August 26, 2011

Anxious parents fill in application forms to register their child at a Guangzhou primary school.

Parents hate it but pay it

A survey conducted by China Youth Daily in 2009 found that over 98 percent of the 14,000 respondents said they believed sponsorship fees were required to get into better schools. More than 60 percent said the practice causes inequality of education, and that schools should be prohibited from charging under-the-table admission fees.

Chu Zhaohui, researcher with the China National Institute for Educational Research, told the Global Times that sponsorship fees started in late 1980s when key schools sprang up nationwide, with the idea of gathering academic high-achievers in one school.

"Local government officials wanted their children to go to the best schools so they could win more opportunities for promotion," Chu said, suggesting that having a child attend a school for outstanding students also helps the parents' careers.

The sponsorship fee first emerged at a time when public education was severely underfunded and schools were cash strapped. The extra fees paid by parents enhanced their child's school and the education system. The local education administration divides the sponsorship fee with a third going to the school it was made to, a third going to the local education commission, and the remainder flowing to the local government's education budget, according to Chu.

Widening the education gap

"This actually widens the quality-of-education gap between schools, and creates an imbalance in education resources," said Chu, adding that sponsorship fees have never been legal and exist only as a well-known, under-the-table practice.

In the 1990's education authorities in Gaungdong Province, and years later in Beijing, introduced a lottery that made some spaces in key schools available to the winners.

A lot of parents didn't like the idea of leaving the quality of their child's education to chance and the lottery ended up encouraging rather than deterring sponsorship fees.

"Almost all the parents are afraid their children will be sent to a bad school," Ren said.

By the time students reach middle school their marks, their teacher's recommendation and their parents' connections often determine what school a student can attend.

Top schools in Beijing allocate only 10 to 15 percent of their enrollment to primary school students who do extraordinarily well on entrance exams. Parents of these bright students usually don't pay a sponsorship fee.

Parents of students who don't fare so well on tests have to pay sky-high sponsorship fees, while parents lucky enough to win the school's lottery are also usually admitted without fees.

The Global Times discovered there are no publicly available statistics showing what percentage of students enrolled in better schools had won the place through the lottery, and how many students' parents had bought their children's way in.

Repeatedly banned

Beginning in 2004, Beijing's Education Commission has tried to ban primary and middle schools for charging what it called "admission fees" and despite annual reminders that they are not allowed the practice continues. The commission does allow senior high schools to collect sponsorship fee from parents of students whose exam scores are no more than 20 points below the schools' admission cut line, according to the commission's website.

On July 28 the commission for the first time specifically mentioned "sponsorship fees" in a new regulation that once again tries to ban them, but released few other details. The commission's spokesperson Cao Meng refused to discuss the issue of sponsorship fees with the Global Times, saying only that the commission's regulations are on its website.

"The schools and local education administrations benefit from the sponsorship fee, which is why it's difficult to ban them," said Chu, the education researcher, suggesting the practice of divvying up the illegitimate fee continues. He believes the central government has increased education funding substantially over the last decade and the sponsorship fees only serve to provide more resources for children of elites who attend public schools.

Tens of millions embezzled

Han Feng, an English teacher with the Beijing No.44 Middle School at Xicheng district, believes the sponsorship fee is a win-win for both school and family. "Schools need the sponsorship fee to expand and hire better teachers and add more interesting educational activities for students," Han told the Global Times, adding that her school and other top high schools in Beijing charge a 30,000 yuan sponsorship fee.

Han said the government should set a standard fee and make it open and transparent as the under-the-table sponsorship fees create a hotbed for corruption and harm the overall development of education across the country.

Wang Cuijuan, former principal of Zhongguancun No.3 Elementary School, one of the top primary schools in the capital, was charged with embezzling more than 100 million yuan from the school's off-the-books fund – mostly sponsorship fees paid by parents, from 2004 to 2008. Wang's case made headlines and her trial is pending.

Meanwhile, the former principal of Beijing No.54 Middle School, surnamed Li was convicted of embezzling 270,000 yuan in sponsorship fees and was sentenced to three years in prison last November.

Ren is still waiting for her daughter's residency permit to be transferred from Fengtai where the family lives, to the neighborhood where they bought their tiny apartment near the school of her choice. This hasn't stopped the mother from preparing her child for the rigors of the key school's entrance exam. Along with attending daily kindergarten classes, the 4-year-old spends part of each weekend attending classes in math, English and the arts.

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