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2017-11-15 12:43:54

Discipline and education authorities in southwestern China ordered an investigation into a local middle school on Tuesday after it charged “voluntary” fees for weekend classes, reported The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.

Earlier the same day, another article in The Paper reported that the junior high school in Ya’an, a city in Sichuan province, had asked parents to pay an “appreciation fee” of at least 1,200 yuan ($180) for teachers who work overtime giving classes on the weekends.

Public schools in China are supposed to be free during the compulsory education period from first to ninth grade. Many do charge small administrative fees of up to a few hundred yuan, but a sum of more than 1,000 is unusual.

“We hereby order the No. 2 Junior High School of Tianquan County to stop charging the fee,” said the local education bureau in an official statement, adding that a thorough investigation would be forthcoming.

According to an undercover video from The Paper, when parents gathered at the school on Sunday for a scheduled Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, they found bill-counting machines in several classrooms for the purpose of collecting the fee. One parent told The Paper that the PTA committee had announced the fee to parents days before the meeting, and that students from all grades in the school were expected to pay up.

“The homeroom teacher said that there was no maximum, but a minimum of 1,200 yuan,” the parent explained. “The teacher said we could change schools if we didn’t want to pay the money.”

In a notice shown to The Paper by school administrators on Monday, the school described the fee as a donation and an idea that came from a consensus among the parents. “The money will be donated to the local education foundation on a voluntary basis — 80 to 90 percent of the parents agreed [to this],” said the school’s principal, Zhang Shuaidong.

However, the foundation, which is administered by the education bureau of Ya’an, has denied any knowledge of the donation scheme.

Du Deyan, a representative from the PTA, told The Paper that she initially proposed the donation in hope that the money would reward teachers who taught extra classes on weekends. Her brainchild, she added, had gained support from other members of the PTA.

In China, it is not unusual for parents to compete tooth and nail to get elected to their school’s PTA committee, since some believe doing so ensures more teacher-student interaction — and possibly preferential treatment — for their children.

But parents not on the PTA committee were upset when the fee was announced. “How can you call it ‘voluntary’ when you have to pay a minimum amount?” asked one incredulous mother in the video.

It is unclear when the appreciation fee was first proposed. A file on the website of the Ya’an government showed that an internet user first reported it to education authorities in March. In response, the education bureau said it had investigated the matter, and the same month ordered the school to stop charging for weekend classes.

The head of the education bureau told The Paper on Monday that though the school last year collected over 500,000 yuan in appreciation fees, it had been prohibited from using those funds.

In 2015, the Ministry of Education banned primary and secondary schools from offering paid extracurricular classes. In addition, though public schools during the compulsory education period have always offered free tuition, students in urban areas have been required to pay for textbooks and charged other ancillary fees. In July of this year, China announced that schools could not charge such fees during the compulsory education period, regardless of where they are located.

To many netizens, the appreciation fee not only goes against the nationwide push to make education more accessible to all, but also damages the public’s perception of teachers and schools.

A Ya’an native surnamed Lin told Sixth Tone that the news had upset her because she knows several teachers from the school and had seen similar cases there in the past.

“Many teachers there don’t care about the students’ education,” said Lin, a first-year university student who is studying to become a teacher and had planned to return to her hometown after graduation. But news of the appreciation fee seems to have discouraged her from staying this course.

“The county middle school is turning education into a business,” she wrote on microblog platform Weibo. “I’d rather go teach in the mountains instead.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Parents pay tuition fees before the beginning of the fall semester in Haian, Jiangsu province, Aug. 30, 2009. Xu Jingbo/VCG)