The High Price for a Free Education

Ni Dandan:

It’s been an exhausting summer for Yu Xi and her son, Fengfeng, but ultimately a successful one. The 6-year-old will start his first year at one of Shanghai’s best public primary schools this month — to the relief of his parents, for whom securing Fengfeng’s seat in the classroom has cost them sleepless nights and millions of yuan. “It’s been driving me crazy,” says Yu.

Like many middle-class parents in China’s big cities, Yu and her husband prepared for this summer years in advance. In 2015, they paid 2.6 million yuan (then around $400,000) for a 30-square-meter apartment in Lujiazui, an area of Shanghai better known for its glitzy waterfront skyscrapers than for its decades-old housing. It was an extortionate fee for a small, dilapidated property; a few streets away, more comfortable apartments sold for much less money. But Yu’s flat boasted one crucial advantage: It was located in the school district where the family hoped to enroll Fengfeng.

China’s middle class is expected to rise from 430 million people today to 780 million people by the mid-2020s. A substantial proportion of them are young, urban families anxious to guarantee a bright future for their children. A good education is key to realizing that dream, but the quality of public education in even the most developed Chinese cities remains highly variable. Consequently, reasonably wealthy parents are spending huge sums of money on xuequfang — school-district homes — in urban areas renowned for educational prowess. Children registered as residents of such homes are more likely to be placed in nearby schools.

Madison recently expanded its least diverse schools, which happen to reside among the more expensive real estate in the city.