Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Something completely different: Chinese education!

Nicholas Kristof recently published an op-ed in the New York Times about how great education is in China. Mostly it was same-old, same-old: Chinese families value education and respect teachers, and Chinese students work harder, so they outperform American students. On the face of it, these seem to me reasonable claims, even if they are simplistic and banal. But he also suggests that the Chinese state--the People's Republic of China, that is--is doing a bang-up job of operating an educational system. To which I could not help but reply: Say what?

Somewhere in the middle he writes:

"Teachers are respected and compensated far better, financially and emotionally, in China than in America...The town [of Dongguan] devotes 21 percent of its budget to education, and it now has four universities. An astonishing 58 percent of the residents age 18 to 22 are enrolled in a university."

Now, I am not an expert on this, of course, but what I've seen about the Chinese education system in the Chinese media and scattered foreign reports over the past few years has suggested that public funding for education in China is in a pretty dismal state. Consider this excerpt from a report based on a UNESCO/OECD study:

"The available data indicate that public spending on education and health [in China] was 2.8% and 0.6% respectively of revised GDP in 2004. These ratios are lower than in many developing countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, let alone OECD countries. Spending on education and health appears low not only relative to other countries, but also in comparison with China’s own national objectives."

Based on the same set of data, another report notes that "In relation to GDP, [Chinese] public spending on education and health is well below that of nearly all OECD as well as most comparable developing countries, while private spending in these areas is among the highest in the world."

You can find the relevant tables here.

For comparison, the same report puts public spending on education in the US at 3.8% of (a much larger) GDP. So is Dongguan an anomaly (and if so, why?), or does “the town of Dongguan” really mean “the private citizens of Dongguan,” or has public funding for education in China skyrocketed between the OECD report and now? I doubt the last possibility.

Anecdotally, this failure to fund appears in the form of complaints about elementary and secondary schools starting to charge fees for everything from books to activities—fees that are heavy and amount to a tuition charge for the education that is supposed to be compulsory and provided by the state. The Chinese media have resounded with such complaints for several years. Google the term luan shou fei 乱收费 (“arbitrarily collecting fees”) and you will get 2 million hits, some of which are about hospitals (responding to a similar lack of public funding for health), but most of which are about “public” schools. Does this really sound like a society in which “governments and families alike pour resources into education”?

If the student’s family can scrape up the fees to get her through primary and secondary school, she does have a better chance of going to college than in the past, since the Chinese government initiated a massive expansion of the higher education system in 1999. Last year I read a report (which seems no longer to be available) about this on the website of the Center on Chinese Education at Columbia. It said that in 1978 there were 856,000 students total in Chinese colleges and universities, and in 2000 the number of places available for freshmen alone was 1.8 million. And last year during the national college entrance exam, the Chinese newspapers reported that the number of freshman slots available at four-year colleges was 2.6 million.

But this has not been an unmitigated good for Chinese society. The number of jobs available for university graduates is now much smaller than the number of university graduates, meaning that a lot of students and their families are going into debt for a college degree that ends up meaning nothing in terms of earning potential or social advancement. This is one source of great dissatisfaction and potential unrest among young Chinese.

Finally, when Kristof concedes (in a single sentence) that China’s education system does have a few problems--“bribes and fees to get into good schools, huge classes of 50 or 60 students, second-rate equipment and lousy universities”—he seems to trivialize corruption. My impression is that corruption is a very serious problem indeed, though of course it’s hard to gauge its extent. It’s not just bribes to get into schools, but bribes to certify teachers who fail to pass tests; bribes that add points to wealthy students' scores on the gao kao (national college entrance exam); and much more.

Kristof's culture-based points I find it easier to accept; the Chinese certainly value education, and families (even very poor ones) are willing to devote a great deal of their collective resources to it. It would be nice if more American families shared this attitude. But I think that lauding the People’s Republic of China for “boosting education,” as he does, misrepresents a system that is deeply dysfunctional.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dems Drop Deadlines: Tell Libs to Drop Dead

Forgive the tabloid headline--I couldn't resist. There are only early reports, to be sure, but it seems that the Democratic leadership has decided that firm deadlines and benchmarks for the bill to fund more of the Iraq war will not be in the next bill. I'm probably more sensitive than many lefties to the political realities Harry Reid et al are dealing with here: they don't have enough votes to override a veto; they don't have much consensus among their own ranks as to what to do next; they are scared of enabling a Republican 'stab in the back' attack. So, the thinking goes, why not use this bill as leverage for whatever non-Iraq measure we can get, and then start planning for September, when we will probably be able to count on support from a few Republicans, and the public will be even more sick of this damn war than they are now. Okay--fine. So you trade a vote for a months-long funding bill for Republican support of some other legislation, like raising the minimum wage. What you're doing is swallowing support of an incredibly unpopular war (and an incredibly unpopular president) in order to force the Republicans to vote for something that's very popular. Does that make any sense?

I don't understand why the Dems think it's their duty to pass some sort of bill that the president will sign, and to do so sooner rather than later. Funding for the war will run out unless more legislation is approved. By remaining steadfast on the inclusion of deadlines in any further funding, the Dems can either force the Bushies to come up with a bill that's acceptable to *the Democrats*, or end the war by running out the clock on current funding. The end-game for the second option is messy, indeed--probably some sort of Constitutional crisis as King Bush tries to keep the war going without any legislation from Congress, and the dead-ender Republicans screaming bloody murder about how the Dems have abandoned our troops in the field.

But please--the Republicans will be screaming bloody murder anyhow, because it's all they've got left. And the vast majority of Americans want this war to end, and end quickly. If it takes a Constitutional crisis, fine--better to force Bush to practice his Constitution-wrecking in public. He's like an alcoholic in his thirst for power. Quietly trying to wait it out, hoping that the problem will go away, is just enabling further abuse. We need an intervention, and the sooner the better.

Dems should stick to their guns on including deadlines in any further funding bills. If Bush says he will veto any bill with deadlines, fine--make him veto them again and again. Hell, if you want to make a game of it, see how lengthy the deadlines can get before Bush says he'll sign the bill. Five years? Twenty? At the very least the Dems ought to be able to use the funding bill to find the limits of Republican support for Bush's war. If no deadline, however lengthy, is acceptable, then how about some benchmarks? Force Bush to certify at regular intervals that the Iraqi government is making progress towards stability and self-security. Certainly there ought to be some metrics enough Republicans would agree on to enable passage with a veto-proof majority. And if there isn't, no bill will pass, and war funding runs out anyway.

Come on, Dems--this is a big opportunity. Your professed principles and political utility coincide on this. Don't cave in to Republican bluster, and your own learned cowardice now.