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March 20, 2012

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Progress on schools, hukou dilemma

FOR the past year, 8-year-old Ding Ding has had to rise an hour earlier than neighbor children to travel with his mother to a school far from their home because his hukou (permanent residence certificate) is registered elsewhere in the city.

He is not eligible for a place in public schools near his rented home in Gaoqiao, Pudong New Area, but he is accepted by schools close to the family's permanent residence in Pudong's Juyuan area. So he spends nearly two hours traveling between home and school every day. His mother worries that lack of sleep will harm his health.

The problem Ding Ding and his family face is far from isolated.

In fact, it's a major problem caused by population shifts as millions of Shanghai locals move out of the homes on their permanent residence certificate, some to newly purchased homes or rented flats in the city.

But the education problem is beginning to ease. Since this year, a new regulation allows Shanghai students to apply for admission to public schools near their actual residence, instead of their permanent family residence. Parents are overjoyed.

Citywide, primary schools will start this year's enrollment in May when parents can submit applications to the schools for their children. The students will start class in September.

The modern hukou family registration system dates from 1958 when it was intended to control population movement between urban and rural areas by tying benefits such as food rations, health care and education to the family home. Urbanization has changed all that.

But the hukou system still entitles holders to a number of benefits, such as public education.

"The new policy will be more humane because it helps children go to the nearest schools," says Ni Minjing, director of the Shanghai Education Commission's elementary education department.

He says it's "part of the city's overall plan to improve administration of public resources at a time of demographic change."

Ni says the change "will bring light to underprivileged households," especially families living in government-subsidized low-rent homes, which they cannot register as their hukou address.

The latest population census showed 30 percent of nearly 14.12 million Shanghai native residents - meaning those holding permanent local residence permits - are now living in one place while their hukou is registered elsewhere in the city.

The number has increased by about 70 percent from a decade ago and is still climbing.

Increasing urbanization, relocation due to demolition and more people buying and renting apartments have all contributed to the situation.

Many urbanites have bought an additional suburban house but they don't want to transfer their hukou to the new location; they want to retain higher urban benefits in Shanghai. Holders of urban and rural hukou generally have different benefits.

Wu Yiqun, whose daughter will attend primary school in September, is relieved the new policy will allow the family to apply for admission to a nearby school, without losing an apartment.

He has been hesitating to transfer the family's hukou from their old house downtown, which is scheduled for demolition, to their new apartment.

If he transfers the hukou, his daughter can attend a nearby school but the family won't receive any compensation in the city's housing relocation program that benefits people losing houses due to demolition.

At this time Wu, his wife and daughter live in a cramped apartment with their parents and a grandmother.

For some people the new policy is a matter of urgency. They moved out to rented apartments to improve their quality of life, but they cannot transfer their hukou with them because the residence permit usually applies to property that is purchased by the holder and his or her family.

Ding Ding's parents were divorced after he was born and he lives with his mother Qiao Lin in a rented apartment near her office in the suburban Gaoqiao area of Pudong.

His hukou is registered at his grandparents' house in Pudong's downtown Juyuan area. Qiao's parents share the small apartment with her uncle. There is little space for both the mother and son.

The separation of hukou from actual residence caused an education dilemma when the boy reached school age in 2010.

"I could neither afford the expensive rents in the Juyuan area, nor apply to enroll my son in a public school in the Gaoqiao area," Qiao says.

"So I quit my job and looked for a more flexible one so I had time to escort him to and from school," she says.

The school in Juyuan area seems better than those in the Gaoqiao area, but Qiao is upset that her son's loss of sleep may undermine his growth.

To prevent speculation by families trying to get a slot in excellent schools by renting houses near them, the new policy rules children living in the area where their hukou is registered will be first in line to apply for a place in nearby schools.

After that, the school will be open to children who live in the area while their hukou is not registered there, according to Ni from the education commission.

The policy was piloted in three districts last year and was overwhelmingly welcomed by parents. This year it covers all 16 districts and Chongming County.


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