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why is China cracking down on private schools?

Last Wednesday, significant reform of China’s private education sector, called the “Law on the Promotion of Private Education” (in Chinese, henceforth “Private Education Law”), went into effect. The law, signed by Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强 after being introduced in April by the State Council, China’s highest administrative unit, prohibits foreign ownership of personal compulsory education and introduces a raft of policies restricting the profiteering of personal schools.

In July, the State Council made international headlines when it banned for-profit tutoring through a policy referred to as “dual alleviation,” pertaining to the reduction of both homework burdens and after-school training. Subsequent coverage isolated the tutoring sector as a source of mental stress, an obstacle to bearing more children, and an example of “disorderly development” (in Chinese) within the private sector. And while these issues explain a part of the rationale behind the policies, they ignore how tutoring policies fit into a wider education reform program now taking shape inside the govt. What the private education law demonstrates is that the bans on tutoring were neither an isolated measure nor fully downstream from China’s broader crackdown on technology. Instead, they’re a part of initiatives to bolster China’s public education system.

China sees the rapid expansion of personal education, both regular schools, and after-class tutoring, as having corrupted the general public education system and therefore the ideals it stands for. Those ideals — of equity and a standard good provided by the country and for the country — are eroding, and regulators want to reverse the trend. The efforts are linked to the broader regulatory crackdown on tech monopolies and therefore the wealthy, but they need their own logic rooted within the history of Chinese education.

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Schools that are privately run (民办 mínbàn) are one among three sorts of education systems in China, the others being public and foreign-passport-holding schools. Since the primary private education law in 2003, the availability of personal schools grew steadily, becoming a well-liked outlet for foreign investment. In 2020, there have been 186,700 private schools in China, accounting for quite one-third of all schools and one-fifth of all students.

The reforms announced last Wednesday, which are within the works since 2018, are an attempt to rein therein initial period of growth. Many of the 68 articles within the law restrict how education is often monetized, especially where public assets are involved: Public schools are prohibited from privatizing parts of their business, while private schools, or those registered as nonprofits, have tighter oversight on their revenue streams.

Other measures evince the ideological overtones now pervasive within the Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 era. The business and curriculums of personal schools must now stick closely to those of public schools. Foreign entities are prevented from holding ownership stakes, adherence to national curriculums are going to be more strongly enforced, and foreign textbooks are prohibited.

The rationale behind the anti-profiteering rules is straightforward: the govt doesn’t want public resources to be co-opted by entrepreneurs for the advantage of wealthy clients who send their kids overseas (a decision increasingly seen as unpatriotic). An example: Before the law, prestigious public schools hosted international divisions, which took tuition fees and predominantly sent kids abroad, despite using public school teachers and resources.

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