Remote County of Abundant Education
By DING XIULING
FOR Xiang Lian'e, a 29-year-old farmer in Simudi Town in Ningshan County, Shaanxi Province, the best thing that happened in 2011 was the savings she made on her children's education. In the fall semester, local kindergartens scrapped all charges other than for meals. Before, daycare for her two children cost her more than RMB 5,000 a year. Now the sum is barely over RMB 1,000. "I was overwhelmed when I heard the news, and called my husband, who works out of the town, straight away," she said.
Such joy is well justified in an inland county where rural per capita income after tax is a meager RMB 3,800. The new policy made Ningshan the first underdeveloped region in China to provide 15 years of free schooling from preschool through to high school.
The Cost of Education
In Shaanxi Province's oil-rich Wuqi County, the local government not only provides 15 years of free education to local children, but also sponsors free vocational training for adults under 45. Considering their different situations, however, Ningshan's achievements in free education are perhaps more impressive.
Like many of China's mountainous areas, Ningshan has weak local industry and its farmland has low yields. The absence of sufficient factory jobs and fertile soil sends most adults to cities to seek their fortune. Li Qiuning, 35, is among the few who have chosen to stay. "Even for those who have odd jobs in the city, tuition and fees are heavy burdens. The monthly wage is normally between RMB 1,000 and 2,000, while the schooling for two children can cost thousands of yuan," Li said.
Li Qiuning grows mushrooms, which earned him some RMB 10,000 a year, higher than the yield of cereals but still not enough to support a family of six. His son starts preschool this year and the scrapping of school fees has saved Li almost RMB 2,000. As his daughter is already in primary school, which became free of charge as early as 1986, he no longer needs to set aside a large portion of his income for his children's schooling. "The new policy makes my life much less stressful," Li Qiuning commented. "The government made this move to benefit people like me."
Sitting in the hinterland of the rolling Qinling Mountains in northwestern China, Ningshan, with a population of 74,000, is on the central government's list of priority areas for poverty relief. In 2011, local farmers' per capita income after tax was a paltry RMB 3,812, and the county's revenue only RMB 30.75 million. Over RMB 1.2 million of that, or close to 40 percent, was earmarked for education, 12.5 percent higher than the national average.
At the time that Ningshan announced the new policy, there were 2,040 children in the area aged between three and six, including those who weren't officially recognized as permanent residents. Their free pre-schooling costs a staggering RMB 2.4 million, equal to around three quarters of the county's annual revenue, but this is just a fraction of what the county spends on education.
A Strong People Makes a Strong County
"Spending on schooling is the most rewarding investment you can make. To build a prosperous county, we must first cultivate capable citizens," stressed Jiang Jun, head of the Ningshan education bureau. This attitude is well established here, and similar remarks can be seen emblazoned on billboards overlooking local highways.
In 2008, as the aftermath of the global financial crisis was felt across China, the weight of this truth was made clear as large numbers of low-skilled jobs were slashed, forcing a deluge of migrant workers home. A survey by the Ningshan government found that 80 percent of laid-off migrant workers had less than nine years of schooling, which was one of the reasons why they were among the first to be squeezed out of employment when the economy turned sour.
As a Chinese saying goes, it takes a decade to grow a big tree and a century to foster a good people, and Ningshan has been working hard for a quarter of that time. As early as the 1980s, when the Chinese economy had barely recovered from the devastation brought by political movements of previous decades, Ningshan was among the first areas in China to ensure safe buildings for every school, separate rooms for each class and desks and seats for each student — which may seem a humble goal today — as well as implement nine-year compulsory education and dig out back pay for teachers. In 2007 it developed a strategy of "rejuvenating Ningshan County through science and education," improving the nutrition of and providing living subsidies for boarding school students in rural areas, abolishing tuition and fees for vocational, primary and middle schools, and making free breakfasts available to all schoolchildren by 2010.