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Urban Chinese Welcome Promise of Free Education

For seven years, pensioner Zhang Jingxuan has struggled to keep Zhang Jiuzhou, his 13-year-old grandson, in school, in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

He and his wife earn 800 yuan (US$107) per month, from which they have to pay at least 2,000 yuan a year for the tuition and other school fees of Zhang Jiuzhou, a student at the middle school affiliated to the Shaanxi No.10 Cotton Textile Factory, where he used to work.

The couple were cheering when they heard that the central government has promised to make free compulsory education universally available in both rural and urban areas from autumn this year.

The pledge was made in the government work report issued on Wednesday, a measure to promote fair education and discourage school dropouts. It came the year after the government implemented free compulsory education in rural areas.

"I borrowed money from almost all my relatives before the fall semester starts," says Zhang, 65, whose daughter divorced eight years ago, and went to live in the southern city of Shenzhen, leaving her son to her parents.

"I don't know whom I can borrow money from for this fall semester," says Zhang. "It's a really, really good news and I hope the measure will be implemented as soon as possible."

Wu Ni, director with the Education Development Research Department, of China National Institute for Educational Research, points out that Premier Wen Jiabao's government work report, which will go through examination and deliberation by NPC deputies before being approved, will have far-reaching significance.

"Every child has the same access to education, and 'dropout' may become a term of the past," says Wu.

In the report, delivered at the First Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC), Wen said this year, central government allocation for education would increase from last year's 107.6 billion yuan (US$14.35 billion) to 156.2 billion yuan (US$20.8 billion), and local governments would increase their spending.

Wang Xiaoshan, 35, a laid-off worker living in a government-subsidized residential quarter in western Beijing, said he and his wife had been worrying about the tuition fees for their six-year-old daughter who will go to school this fall.

Wang and his wife earn 2,000 yuan a month in total. Their daughter's one-semester tuition and miscellaneous fee were set to cost 600 yuan, a heavy burden.

"We feel much easier now since my daughter will go to school like other children," said Wang.

"China cannot modernize if education is not made universally available and if its quality is not improved," said Premier Wen in the government work report.

The government stopped collecting tuition and other school fees in rural areas last spring, benefiting 150 million students, including the 7.8 million from poor families.

"This is another major measure for promoting the balanced development of compulsory education and equal access to education," Wen told almost 3,000 NPC deputies in the Great Hall of the People on March 5.

Wu Ni said the measure would reduce the economic burden of urban low-income families.

Chen Jin, a primary school principal in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, said the measure would help China's education development meet international standards.

"It's crucial that the government should monitor the fund allocating process, to ensure smooth implementation," said Chen.

(Xinhua News Agency March 7, 2008)

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