China’s segregated school system hinders migrants

When Eli Friedman set out to write his second book, he intended to focus on the segregated education system in China and how it affected the work of teachers, but soon found that the project was moving in an unexpected direction .

“When I started talking to teachers about their work, it brought up so many other issues,” said Friedman, associate professor and chair of international and comparative work at the ILR School. “They talked about the normal workplace concerns about wages and working hours, but also the bigger issues of the wider social environment and the fact that the government was taking all these steps to make their lives extremely difficult – both the teachers and the families they served.

The urbanization of peopleto be published in May by Columbia University Press, reveals how Chinese cities have granted public goods to the privileged while condemning poor and working-class migrants to insecurity, constant mobility and degraded educational opportunities.

“In China, public schools are good schools and private schools are bad,” Friedman said. “For people excluded from public schools, there is a parallel education system – private schools that receive little or no money from the government. They are totally dependent on tuition fees, but they serve a poor population, so they operate under incredibly tight financial constraints.

Using schools as a backdrop, Friedman studies how the state manages the flow of people to the city, often limiting educational opportunities to the children of “migrants” – rural Chinese who move to big cities to better work opportunities. There are now nearly 300 million of these migrants in China who live outside their place of official registration, meaning they may be denied access to social services.

“In 2014, the government set this ‘population limit’ of 23 million for Beijing and basically told local authorities that they had to find ways to get rid of some of the ‘less desirable’ people in the cities,” he said. Friedmann. “And they used all sorts of mechanisms, including relocating labor-intensive industries out of town, demolishing entire informal settlements, but also demolishing or closing schools and making it difficult for the children of people from rural areas to enter public city schools and thus believing, rightly I think, that if the children cannot enter the schools, the parents will have to leave.

Friedman conducted about 250 interviews with teachers and migrants in Beijing, as well as in the city of Guangzhou in the south, the city of Guiyang in the southwest and the city of Chengdu in the west of the country.

Through his research, Friedman discovered that when private schools close, migrant parents find themselves in a precarious situation. If parents are lucky, they may find another neighborhood school to take their children to. The other options are to move elsewhere – which may affect their work – or to send the children back to the rural area to live with the extended family – which has created the phenomenon of almost 60 million “abandoned” children who live without their parents.

“You organize your life in a particular way and you need it to continue that way,” Friedman said. “And if one of the legs of this table falls, then everything can fall apart.”

Friedman’s first book, “The Trap of Insurrection: Labor Politics in Post-Socialist Chinapublished in 2014 explored labor and state relations in China. Through this book, he began to hear the concerns of migrant parents.

“In speaking to many migrant workers for my first project, their biggest concerns were often not what was happening in the workplace, but their children’s schooling,” Friedman said. “If you have children, to stabilize your life, you need a job and enough money to pay the rent, but you also need to feel that your children have a future where you live. So often education was their biggest concern.

“The migrant workers who are the thread that connects these two projects.”

Julie Greco is a communication specialist at the ILR School.

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