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Parents vie to buy children's way into schools

By Bai Ping | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-18 07:56

Recently, one of my colleagues told me that she had declined the offer to get her six-year-old son admitted to a top primary school in Beijing because she didn't want to donate the suggested sum of money in return. Instead, she has decided to send her son to a second-tier school from this September.

I simply looked at her in disbelief. As far as I know, most people who want their children to go to a prestigious school have to make some sort of contribution to the school. Since demand is far greater than vacancies, parents joke that the real problem is not about having enough money to donate but finding a school principal willing to accept the "school-choosing fee", as it is commonly known.

But my colleague said that the school had demanded half a million yuan ($81,000) to be given in the form of equipment. "My husband and I didn't think it was worth that much, maybe 150,000 yuan would be more acceptable to us," she said, trying to put on a brave face.

I didn't ask her how she and her husband had arrived at the figure of 150,000 yuan. Perhaps they had studied the mom-and-dad blogs that list unverified rates of securing a seat for children in the most reputable primary schools, although no school will admit its seats are for sale except for saying that it charges a relatively modest administrative fee for transfer students. One new post on the Internet tabulates the price range between 100,000 yuan and 320,000 yuan for the city's elite schools. The offer my colleague got seemed to have just set a new record.

It may sound crazy, but despite high costs, many parents are desperate to admit their children to a prestigious school because it is still the most direct and economic way to provide good education for their children, especially for those who don't live in a school zone to enjoy home-distance advantage in enrolment or don't work for a powerful employer that has invested in a good local school.

Besides first-class faculty and facilities, a top primary school offers a better chance to students of getting admitted to secondary schools that yield bumper crops of graduates who are accepted by the best colleges every year. This appeals to parents who fear their children would be left behind in an education system that hinges on a series of competitive exams to propel successful candidates into the best schools and jobs.

If parents don't want to pay donations - many believe cash donations have encouraged corruption in their dream schools - they can buy an apartment in the vicinity of a good school. But prices of such properties have shot through the roof. An 8-square-meter room in a courtyard near the prestigious Shijia Primary School reportedly costs 1.3 million yuan now.

They can also try to beg people in power to speak for their children. They'll pay significantly less if their patrons have enough clout. But principals resent such interference, and some go into hiding during recruitment seasons.

As the multi-billion-dollar business booms and becomes an important source of finance for schools to inflate their muscles, it gives rise to controversies on equality and the purpose of education as well as lack of transparency on how the donations made by parents are spent.

Some argue that it is morally wrong for public primary schools to market their seats to taxpayers. Yet the decades-long education practice that favors a handful of key schools with more funding and other generosities has fueled the mad rush. The gap between the elite schools and the rest is widening with the elite schools growing bigger and stronger thanks to the extra income.

So, without major changes to the uneven distribution of educational resources and the rigorous selection system based on exams, parents will laugh at the idea of letting their children study in any public school just because it is close to their home.

Think again, I remember advising my colleague, if the offer still stands.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 05/18/2013 page5)

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