Let’s be clear: Chinese cities are making the country’s left-behind children even more deprived. They have shown themselves unwilling to take on the task of educating the children of their domestic migrant populations, who are restricted by tight household registration policies. In 2014, of the 168 million rural laborers who flooded the cities in search of work, only 20 percent were able to bring their families. Most must leave their children behind in their home villages.
In recent years, some of China’s megacities have sought to limit the growth of urban populations, adopting a policy of “population control through education.” Migrant families whose documents aren’t fully in order, or who are incapable of navigating the intricate points system that determines whether their children can be placed in a public school, are often unable to enroll their so-called floating children in municipal institutions.
Things weren’t always like this. Shanghai was once a model for providing compulsory education — grades one through nine — to the children of migrants. In 2008, the then-municipal Party secretary repeatedly called upon the city to guarantee free compulsory education to 100 percent of migrant children by the end of 2010. It was the first time any major Chinese city had taken such an inspiring stance on the issue.
The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission soon launched a program to lower the barriers to education for migrant children. Enrollment rates in the city rose quickly, with the majority of migrant students able to attend higher-quality state-run schools. Per-capita student support for non-state-run schools also increased from 2,000 yuan ($300) in 2008 to 6,000 yuan in 2016.
Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou soon followed suit. Beginning around 2008, the number of migrant children studying in the three cities grew steadily, peaking in 2013. Those five years also represented a golden age of fair treatment for domestic migrants in cities more generally.
China’s first-tier cities have not sustained these efforts, however. Trends in elementary school admissions reveal how cities have taken steps to push migrant children away. In Shanghai, admissions reached a 20-year high in 2013, with 181,000 new elementary school enrollees, before declining steadily since 2014. By 2015, this figure had dropped to under 160,000. The same trend goes for Beijing, which saw 166,000 new students in 2013, a figure that dropped to 146,000 two years later.
Birth rates among registered households in Beijing and Shanghai remained steady during this period, meaning the primary cause of falling enrollment figures was a decline in the number of migrant students. In Shanghai, the number of migrant children enrolled in the city’s elementary schools went from 87,000 in 2013 to 62,000 in 2015, while in Beijing, this figure dropped from 75,000 to 46,000 in the same time frame.
This decline is the result of increasingly high barriers to enrollment for the children of migrants. In 2014, according to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, school-age children without a Beijing household registration would not only be required to provide five pieces of documentation — instead of the previous two — but would also need to have these documents verified at the district or county level, a job that was previously done less formally by the neighborhood committee. The standards for these documents have also increased.
Meanwhile, beginning in 2014, Shanghai began gradually raising local schools’ admissions thresholds for children whose parents held temporary residence permits. These parents — many of whom are hardworking rural migrants — were required to show proof of legal residence and employment for at least three consecutive years, up from the previous requirement of only one year.
If the higher standards only extended to state-run schools, then these children would still be able to attend privately run institutions set up to educate migrant children. Yet despite the fact that these schools have sufficient resources, they are struggling to recruit younger students. Migrant schools in Beijing have even been forced to close their doors under pressure from the authorities.
Migrant populations have made an incalculable contribution to new urban infrastructure, as well as through the income generated from land sales and turnover taxes on a booming housing market and flourishing business environment. An influx of migrants lowers living expenses in any city; without this flow of newcomers, these cities hold little appeal.
The migrant population has also done much to prop up the urban social security system. In Shanghai, if you subtract payments made by rural migrant laborers and residence permit holders hailing from other cities or towns, the city’s 2015 social security accounts go from a surplus of 17.3 billion yuan to a deficit of 35.3 billion. According to statistics from Shanghai University professor Liu Yuzhao, in 2015, Shanghai spent less than 8.87 billion yuan on compulsory education for migrant children. Our spending on public services for unregistered households is dwarfed by their contributions to our cities.
Children being able to live with their parents is vital to a city’s future. As China’s cities continue to urbanize, many of today’s left-behind children will one day join the ranks of the urban population, and their educational level and civic sense will determine the quality of our cities’ development in the years to come.
The central government has also expressed concern over the issue of migrant children and has issued new policies allowing students to transfer individually allocated education subsidies with them across provinces and between cities. The goal is to incentivize local governments to admit migrant children: Wherever the people go, the money goes.
Undoubtedly, this will allow cities on the receiving end of population inflows to increase their revenue from transferred child education subsidies, but public funds cover only a small percentage of overall compulsory education costs. From 2008 to 2015, the central financial authorities contributed an average of less than 6.5 billion yuan a year for the education of every eligible migrant child in the country. Such a paltry sum is unlikely to fundamentally alter the calculus of local governments.
Over the next 10 years, I recommend that further transferable funds be earmarked to subsidize and incentivize local governments to enroll migrant children in city schools. For each migrant student local governments admit, they should receive a corresponding transfer payment. At the same time, we should name and punish local governments that erect barriers to the enrollment of migrant students.
Transferable funds earmarked for migrant students must be large enough to influence decision-making by local government education bureaus and other departments. To ensure the appeal of these incentives, we should at least double the current figure put by for transfer payments. Available funds should also be set to grow with the overall number of migrant children and indexed to account for rising education costs. After all, it’s only fair to give every child equal opportunity to exercise their right to an education.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A group of migrant children walk across the campus of a migrant school in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 31, 2005. Yang Duoduo/VCG)