Educational Equity at the Village Level | Teachers College Columbia University

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Educational Equity at the Village Level

TC's Mun Tsang has led the fight to fund schooling for China's rural poor

Many people trace the origin of China’s current boom times to the reform and “opening up” policies launched in 1978, including the decentralization of the economic and education sectors implemented in the early 1980s. Under that shift, the responsibility for economic planning and spending moved outward from the central government to the provincial, county and township levels.

But the boom times haven’t benefited everyone equally. The standard of living in many of China’s rural areas now lags far behind that of the cities—and that has had significant consequences for primary and secondary school education. Local districts, which under the new system must shoulder up to 80 to 90 percent of school financing, lack the necessary tax base—particularly since central and provincial governments control most of the productive taxes. Until recently, many parents, forced to pay “miscellaneous fees” of up to 150 to 200 yuan ($20–25 US) a year to cover much of the schools’ expenses, including textbooks, simply have kept their children (especially girls) at home.

“What’s happening in China today with education is like what was happening in the United States a century ago,” says TC faculty member Mun Tsang, founding director of the College’s Center on Chinese Education. “When China decentralized its economy and public financing, it pushed responsibility for education financing too far down, to the village and township levels, where there isn’t the capacity to raise adequate funding for school.”
In 1993, at a conference convened by the World Bank, Tsang himself was the first to call attention to this issue. In two subsequent papers, published in the Economics of Education Review and the Harvard Education Review, Tsang called for China to institute a “regularized, substantial and transparent scheme of intergovernmental funding” for China’s poorest schoolchildren.
And from 2002 to 2005, he put theory into practice as, through grants from the Charles Schulz Foundation and funds it raised from other sources, the Center on Chinese Education provided 5,100 scholarships to enable the poorest children in rural areas of Yunnan Province to go to school.
“The Schulz Foundation already was funding efforts like this in Africa,” Tsang says. “I happened to know the chairman, and I told him, ‘Hey, this problem is just as bad in China.’” Because Teachers College made the decision to take no money for its overhead costs out of the Schulz grant, “every penny went to the children,” Tsang says. He also instituted a system under which parents received their assistance money through the schools, “so that nothing was siphoned off.”
The program was a success. The dropout rates in the project schools in Yunnan Province came down substantially, and school attendance among girls went up. And in 2006, just as Tsang was gearing up to renew the grant, China’s central government announced that it was instituting a similar program nationwide. Since 2007, the Central Ministry of Finance has implemented a phased program to provide over 240 billion yuan (about $35 billion US) in additional funding to compulsory education—nine years of primary and lower-secondary school—so that China’s poorest children (about 5-to-10 percent of the country’s 120 million primary students and 65 million lower-secondary students) are exempted from paying miscellaneous school fees.
Tsang has been widely recognized for his work in this area, receiving, among other honors, the designations “Honorary President, China Economics of Education Society” and, in 2006, “Changjiang Scholar”—the first time the latter award, which is a national professorship, was given to someone in the education field. He also received the Richard Swanson Excellence in Research Award from the American Academy of Human Resources Development for his research on access to and financing of basic-literacy programs in China. But he isn’t resting on his laurels. He has since collaborated with the Ministry of Education and the World Bank on some $700 million worth of development projects to build more than 20,000 primary and lower secondary schools and train more than 100,000 primary and secondary school teachers in poor rural areas of China. His Center on Chinese Education is conducting an ongoing evaluation of how seven Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (the U.K., Canada, Korea, Japan, Spain, Australia and the U.S.) with somewhat similar decentralized education finance systems and populations of at least 20 million reduce disparities and improve equity in the financing of primary and secondary education. He is also leading a research team to examine policies to strengthen compulsory education for poor migrants’ children in urban China.
And the Center maintains a wide range of other activities, including collaborations with a diverse group of TC faculty members (Henry Levin, Tom Bailey, Kevin Dougherty, Anna Neumann, Fran Schoonmaker, Lin Goodwin, Lambros Comitas, Francisco Rivera-Batiz, Aaron Pallas, Herve Varenne, Delores Perin, Jeff Henig, George Bond, Charles Harrington, Carolyn Riehl, Luis Huerta, Craig Richards, Lucy Calkins, Stephen Peverly, Bruce Vogeli, Robert Monson, Xiaodong Lin and others) whose expertise ranges from anthropological and cultural studies to education technology. Under the Center’s auspices, some 50 visiting Chinese scholars have come to TC, and some 200 primary and secondary education leaders and some 50 university leaders have participated in education seminars at the College. The Center is also a source of learning and financial support for many TC students.

China is obviously a big, important country, and an actively engaged and constructive bilateral relationship with the United States is very important,” Tsang says. “It’s good that TC and President Fuhrman are taking such a strong interest in internationalization.” Millions of Chinese schoolchildren and their parents would surely agree.

Published Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2009