In leading China from 1978 until his death in 1997, Deng Xiaoping reversed the course of the nation’s economy from one centrally planned to one guided by the market. Disillusioned with the lack of economic progress for China under Mao Zedong, Deng had become a pragmatist. “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white,” he famously said, “so long as it catches mice.”
The turning point for Deng came soon after ascending to power. A severe drought in Anhui Province led to starvation and mass migration. Fields were so parched that farmers could barely plow them. The farmers appealed for a return to the long-abandoned household responsibility model, whereby families tilled their own land and then delivered a portion of their crops to the state and consumed or sold the remainder. Deng's government consented. In the ensuing sixteen years, agricultural output grew by 50 percent.
The commune system in China was thus undone, and with its demise nearly all forms of collectivization unraveled. This applied to education as well as industry. The Communist Party had converted all private schools to public institutions soon after taking power in 1949. A decade after the drought in Anhui Province, the government began decentralizing the school system with the authorization of minban (“operated by the people”) schools. Individuals and social organizations were urged to establish schools; schools themselves gained more autonomy; and parents gained more freedom of choice.
By the mid-1990s, many minban schools had transmuted into conventional private schools charging considerable tuition. Though funded by parents paying such tuition, these schools were subsidized by the state through free or low-fee property leases. The incentive for the government to subsidize private schools in this manner was twofold: to advance academic achievement through competition among schools; and to offload educational expenditures to private citizens who could afford to pay tuition for their children. In 1994, there were 2,358 minban schools enrolling just over 451,000 students. By 2006, there were 16,527 minban schools enrolling just over 12,568,000 students.
In Educational Privatization in China: A Case Study, Yiwen Wang describes in detail Mei Jia International School, a private boarding school for students in grades 7 to 9 in Guiyang, capital of the inland province of Guizhou and home to 4.8 million people. Through a series of interviews with Mei Jia’s principal, teachers, and students, Wang addresses the school’s relationship with the government as well as its method of management, its finances, student enrollment, and teacher recruitment.
In focusing on one middle school, Wang, a native of Guiyang who recently completed a master’s degree in education policy at Teachers College, illustrates the evolution and process of private provision of education in a country where private education hardly existed a generation ago. In documenting the cost of private schooling in Guiyang, Wang sheds light on the nation’s growing problem of student sorting by family income. Finally, in analyzing the school day and system of accountability, Wang exposes the grim reality of private schools in China as pressure-cookers for students and teachers alike. In the name of preparing students for the high-school entrance exam, the zhongkao, middle schools compromise on promised extracurricular activities to make more time for test prep. To hold teachers responsible, school administrators assess and pay teachers according to student results.
Lucid, probing, and fortified with first-person impressions, this study at once provides a micro perspective on a massive shift in educational policy in China and raises questions about school choice echoing those posed in the U.S. as well as many other countries.
Samuel E. Abrams
September 25, 2019