The Culprit Behind Chinese School District Property Fever

“Where are the children going? No.43 Middle School, Tianshan No.1 Elementary School…Good schools are no longer her dream.” (Source: VCG)

Last week, officials at Beijing Xicheng District, home to some of the best public schools in the country, released results of the 2021 elementary school assignment. Those who had spent tens of millions of yuan on an apartment in this area, hoping to get their children tickets into one of the “key elementary schools”, ended up being randomly assigned to “ordinary elementary schools” outside the prestigious district, leaving parents appalled and angry. Some parents reportedly gathered outside the District’s Education Committee building to protest, causing two housing agents to be arrested for “inciting group gatherings”.

Lagging behind other districts in Beijing, Xicheng District is the last to have implemented the new policy known as “multi-school dicing”, whereby house ownership in the district will no longer in itself guarantee enrollment in a nearby elite school, as has been the case under the so-called “proximity principle”.

Location, location, location

Assigning students to schools near their homes is a common practice in many parts of the world, often creating a reciprocal and self-reinforcing relationship between housing and education. That is, a wealthier neighborhood typically has access to better educational resources, which in turn raises property prices in the area, leading to more investment in education.

While this logic applies especially to the U.S., where local property tax pays for education, in China, the fever surrounding “school district property” (xue qu fang) seems to follow a reverse logic: entry into quality schools requires local homeownership, and hence the rise of house prices.

Understandably, Chinese parents, many of whom have only one child, strive to provide the best for their children, especially in the face of China’s hyper-competitive educational system. But spending 1.5 million yuan ($227,000) on an uninhabitable alleyway in exchange for a slot in a local public school still sounds slightly out of the way.

Except, the school in question has been recognized as a “key elementary school”. Successful enrollment makes it a lot easier to enter “key middle schools,” “key high schools” and ultimately, “key universities”.

But just how big a difference could it make?

A pupil from Sanfan, one of the key elementary schools in Xicheng District, has 80% possibility to get direct admission to Sanfan Middle School, which then gives them about a 75% chance to get into an elite high school. By contrast, in districts like Daxing, or in what Beijing parents call “pit schools,” about 30-50% of the students do not have a chance to enter any high school at all, let alone elite ones. In 2020, around 90% of all Beijing students who made it into Peking University and Tsinghua University, China’s two top universities, hailed from elite high schools in Xicheng and Dongcheng districts.

Students with access to key schools have huge cumulative advantages over those who don’t. Man Hui, a teacher from Nanjing, told Pandaily that judging by academic performance, few of her students from the so-called “ordinary middle school” are able to enter key high schools in the city.

The difference is so big that it bothers parents who try not to push their children too hard. In an online forum where members call themselves “foxi parents”, or parents who do not hold high expectations for their children, a member asked about school district housing.

“Should foxi parents consider purchasing a school district property?”

“Absolutely yes. No matter how fo (indifferent) you are, you wouldn’t want your kids to end up in a shitty school where students beat each other up all day,” reads the most popular comment.

The culprit

The core issue here is the glaring disparity in educational resources – not just that between rural and urban areas, but between public schools recognized as “key” and “ordinary” within one city as well.

Yang Dongping from 21st Century Education Research Institute believes that the “key school system” is the main culprit for today’s problem of competition for school district properties. The system was established in the 1950s, aiming to concentrate limited resources to invest in a small number of top students. This was in accordance with China’s overall strategy to surpass the West during the Cold War period.

The policy lost its legitimacy in 1986 with the enactment of the Compulsory Education Law, which aimed to provide equal education for all. But the disparity was already large, and key schools were reluctant to let go of their elite status, as well as the preferential treatment coupled with it.

Prior to current “multi-school dicing” policy, by which students are allocated to public schools on a random basis, Chinese government adopted the so-called “proximity principle” to fix the problems caused by key school system. The reasoning is simple: if schools were to stop recruiting the best students across the city through exams, instead admitting students from nearby, there would be less pressure on students and the gap in educational resources could be gradually bridged.

But this solution neglects spatial inequality across different districts, as many of the key schools are located in traditionally wealthy parts of the city. Given the legacy of the key school system, the proximity principle guarantees equal rights to education, but not necessarily equal access to quality education. In effect, it reinforces the unbalanced allocation of educational resources that had already existed in the first place.

In order to gain access to better education, parents have no choice but to purchase school district properties at sky-high prices. The huge gap between key and ordinary schools assures them that it is a worthwhile choice, and the highly homogenized middle-class parenting style found in Chinese gated communities provides an extra safeguard for their chidren’s future.

Indeed, as a parent commented in an online discussion, school district property is not just about schools, it pertains to the reproduction of social class too.

“Students living in school districts have similar family backgrounds, and their parents tend to have a positive influence on them … It is the environment that matters.”

While the Chinese motto “education changes fate” may have lost its validity among the rural population, many of whom drop out early to work because local education is so bad that people can hardly let their fates depend on it, for Chinese urban middle class, quality education is still the best possible way to climb the social ladder — or at least prevent them from falling down from the middle strata.

Bring out the “big guns”?

The newly introduced “multi-school dicing policy” marks the Chinese government’s attempt to address educational inequality in megacities like Beijing and Shanghai. It has been the most strictly implemented policy concerning school district housing throughout the years since the problem’s emergence around 2010; it is also part of the latest reform in the domestic education sector, following measures including tightened regulation of off-campus tutoring, having public schools provide day care service during holidays, and a clampdown on China’s online education industry.

Professor Lu Ming from Shanghai Jiaotong University pointed out that policies such as “multi-school dicing” will indeed weaken the role of school district property when it comes to accessing quality education, but individual students will then have to count merely on pure luck.

“Is that real educational equity? I think it’s debatable,” Lu commented, adding that more public funding in education is always the right choice.

In a widely circulated article titled “In Order to Encourage Births, The Government Brings Out the Big Guns,” the author listed recent reforms in the education sector, including new regulations targeting school district property markets. He passionately concluded that “No one can stand in the way of educational equity! We the ordinary people finally see the day!”

The comments, however, are less optimistic.

“What about real estate prices? With unaffordable housing costs, everything is empty talk!” complained a top comment, earning 1140 “likes”.

“I only hope it’s not going to be much cry and little wool,” another one writes.

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