SHANGHAI: It seemed like an ordinary day earlier this month at the Jianying Hope School for migrant children here, with fidgety students settling down in their modest classrooms as their teachers prepared for the day's lessons.
Then the police arrived. At least 100 of them, according to witnesses, along with even larger numbers of security agents and local officials, who quickly filled the school's courtyard and cordoned off the site. The private elementary school, the teachers and their 2,000 students were informed, was being closed.
"They just showed up and closed the school while we were teaching," said one teacher, who asked that her name not be used, for fear of official retribution. "Children were crying, teachers were crying and people were very scared. You know in China that police are the most frightening thing."
The school closure has been widely criticized — even on the Web site of the state-run People's Daily. Yet, for all the professed shock, the heavy- handed operation was just one of scores of such incidents that have occurred in China's big eastern cities recently, as national and local authorities wrestle with a mandate that they provide a public education for the children of migrant workers, who until recently were barred from public schools in their parents' adopted cities.
Indeed, the closure of the Jianying school, far from an effort to deprive the children of an education, was the logical, if rough-edged, consequence of the new measure.
Under complex rules governing social mobility that are a legacy of Maoist times, the laborers from rural China — who have streamed to the country's rich eastern cities by the millions to build their towering skylines, clean and cook for others and do all kinds of work that more prosperous city dwellers shun — face widespread discrimination.
Their salaries often go unpaid, they are scorned by city dwellers, who often treat them as inferiors, and they lack many of the rights that residents have to public services, including the right of their children to attend public schools.
Deprived of access to public education, migrants turned to private schools, many of them unlicensed and substandard. Trying to right this wrong, the Chinese State Council, or cabinet, passed a regulation in 2003 ordering local governments to provide a public school education for all of the children under their jurisdictions.
But the edict created a huge new burden for local governments, without providing the money to carry it out.
Since then, China's big eastern cities, where most of the nation's 20 million or more migrant children live, have been scrambling to find ways to comply. But the implementation has been uneven and bedeviled with unintended consequences. In the worst cases, critics charge, private schools are closed down without any provision for placing the students in public schools.
In Beijing, education experts say, 132 migrant schools were slated for closure last year, in a big push to comply with the new regulation. But the city failed to provide public schools for the displaced students, the experts said, prompting an uproar and raising suspicions that the government was seeking to reduce the numbers of migrants in the city before the 2008 Olympics, which will be held in the capital.
Beijing's push against the private schools stalled amid complaints of unfairness from the public and charges of human rights violations by legal experts and nongovernmental organizations. Since then, dozens of the schools have resumed operations, often after doing little more than moving to a new location.
In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, where huge assembly line industries have drawn more migrant laborers than any other province, the city has been buying out private schools and converting them into public schools.
Other cities, like Hangzhou, have reportedly been extending technical assistance to the migrant schools, trying to bring them up to acceptable standards.
Until now, Shanghai, China's largest city, had avoided high-profile moves against migrant schools.
Where Beijing's crackdown affected lots of schools in a short period of time, Shanghai has acted against its migrant schools more gradually, slowly squeezing them out of the city center and now moving bit by bit through the periphery. In the past year, according to published reports, 16 migrant schools out of a total of 293 have been closed.
The city's goal is to have 70 percent of migrant workers' children enrolled in public schools by 2010.
Shanghai officials refused repeated requests for an explanation of the Jianying school's closure. Wang Xin, a spokeswoman for the Shanghai Municipal Education Commmission, would only say of the migrants, "We are not kicking them out of Shanghai."
District-level officials said that students had been placed in a new public school the following week, for which they would not be charged.
However, critics of the government's handling of the matter said that in some instances, as few as 10 percent of the students were absorbed into the public school system.
"As long as 40 percent can enter public school, it looks good for the government, as if the migrants' education problem is solved," said Zhang Yichao, a volunteer who works with migrant schools in Shanghai.
Parents of the children at Jianying have heard enough horror stories like that one to be worried. They are also concerned about school fees, which can be higher for public schools than for the migrants' private schools.
"Right now they are not charging any fees, and they've provided a school bus to take our kids to school," said Fang Yidong, 37, the father of two students who were moved from Jianying to the new public school.
As he spoke, the man, a migrant laborer from Anhui Province, grated large white radishes while his wife tended the grill at their hole-in-the-wall restaurant, which doubles as their home.
"We came to Shanghai for a reason, and that was to get a better education for our children, to give them a better life," Fang said. "If the new school fees are more expensive, though, we'll have to send our kids back home."