Last week, a media report on the miserable state of laid-off "substitute teachers" triggered online debates over the government's plan to qingtui - screen and discharge - teachers not on its regular payroll. While some argue in defense of the government, the better half of the online critics accuse the education authorities of "killing the donkey after the milling job" - a Chinese proverb meaning getting rid of somebody after he has outlived his usefulness.
I will not concentrate on whether the Ministry of Education's decision to qingtui substitute teachers is reasonable or not. Theoretically speaking, replacing substitute teachers with relatively low qualifications with more qualified ones is commendable. The outcome, however, has been a far cry from what the authorities had hoped.
The ministry announced in March 2006 that steps would be taken to qingtui the country's 448,000 substitute teachers "in the shortest possible period of time". Nearly four years have passed since then, but 310,000 of them are still working in primary and middle schools, and the plan does not look like being accomplished any time soon. In fact, last Wednesday a ministry spokeswoman ruled out setting any deadline for the qingtui plan.
These facts are the best proof that substitute teachers are still indispensable in the country's elementary education sector.
My question is: Why don't the authorities officially acknowledge such teachers' role and give them some kind of status? The least they deserve is remuneration in accordance with their contribution.
A substitute teacher's pay is far less than an "official" teacher's. In Weiyuan county, Shaanxi province, the place where the media report focused last week, a substitute teacher earns a paltry 80 yuan ($12) a month while an official one makes 1,300 yuan ($191). In Qichun county, Hubei province, where I once worked as a teacher, it is 420 yuan for substitute teachers and 1,700 yuan for regular ones. Though the difference varies in different places, it is shockingly sharp.
The long practice of employing substitute teachers attests the dearth of regular teachers at the elementary level. So apart from the substitute teachers identified as ineligible to continue on their job, the others should be recognized as regular teachers. They have been used rigorously to meet the goal of 9-year compulsory education for children, but treated shabbily. This is extremely unfair. To correct this wrong, the government should give them a considerable salary raise.
Writing on the same subject three years ago, I had made a calculation to show that raising the substitute teachers' pay would not constitute a heavy burden on the government.
Suppose the monthly pay of a substitute teacher is 250 yuan on average across the country, and suppose one-third of the 310,000 substitute teachers are not eligible to teach after the "screenings" and each of the remaining gets a pay rise to 1,000 yuan a month, the annual increase in the State budget would be only 1.86 billion yuan. Is this huge?
Consider this. A journal published by the Central Party School said in 2006 that the public money spent on official banquets and government vehicles in the country was 600 billion yuan a year.
Of course, the reasoning sounds a bit unpractical, because local governments, as opposed to provincial or central, have to pay the substitute teachers' salaries. There is, however, something they can do: streamline their administrative structures and save the money to increase the allocation on education.
It has come to light in recent years that local government departments are heavily overstaffed. It is not uncommon to see a county government with more than 10 deputy mayors and numerous offices, set up under various names to employ leaders' relatives. In some offices, the senior members even outnumber the ordinary staff. Doing little but being paid handsomely is quite common in many government organizations.
Probably, it is more necessary to qingtui such redundant staff than to qingtui the substitute teachers.