Like many working-class parents, Yim Ka-yin welcomes publicly funded preschools. Her younger daughter, now in K1, gets HK$1,680 each month under the government's voucher scheme to subsidise kindergarten education. That isn't sufficient to cover the full fees, and because the family doesn't qualify for fee remission under a means-tested programme, Yim must pay HK$500 a month for the child's tuition at a Mong Kok kindergarten.
As her daughter progresses through kindergarten, Yim, a catering worker, expects payments will increase. Fees for her elder daughter, who completed preschool last year, rose to HK$800 per month, not including fees for extracurricular activities, she says.
Introduced in 2007, the voucher is available to any child attending a non-profit kindergarten offering the local curriculum that has joined the scheme. The idea is not just to widen access to preschool education. In a sector where standards vary considerably, education officials also aim to improve cost efficiency and raise teaching quality by setting conditions for participating schools. All teachers were expected to obtain Certificates in Early Childhood Education by the 2011-12 academic year, for example, and all principals taking up their posts from 2009 were expected to hold relevant degrees.
But kindergarten operators say the many restrictions under the scheme, particularly a cap on tuition, have driven many schools out of business. Of the 165 kindergartens that have closed since vouchers were introduced, 114 (69 per cent) were non-profit nurseries in the scheme.
Hong Kong Kindergarten Association president Mary Tong Siu-fun says whole-day nurseries have been hardest hit.
For the coming academic year, annual tuition is capped at HK$52,520 for whole-day nurseries, and HK$26,260 for half-day schools. However, the voucher value will remain the same for both.
"It's unfair to full-day operators that have higher overhead costs. Most of those that closed were full-day schools," says Tong, who is also principal of Parkview Rhine Garden Preschool in Sham Tseng.
"The Education Bureau says it doesn't encourage parents to place toddlers in full-day nurseries because family bonding time is important. But [not having whole-day care] stops mothers from holding full-time jobs."
A recent audit report has criticised the Education Bureau for lax supervision of kindergartens in the scheme, which, apart from tuition, charge for miscellaneous items from air conditioning to stationery. But Tong says the cap on tuition has forced kindergartens to devise other ways to pay for swelling rental, staff and other costs. Yet the government did not raise tuition ceiling until this academic year to $25,200 for half-day and HK$50,400 for whole-day nurseries.
Many kindergartens have since chosen to withdraw from the scheme; 735 preschools remain in the programme, compared with the 768 that signed up in 2007.
"Schools would rather [raise their fees] and risk losing parents who opt for another [voucher scheme] nursery than be subject to the ceiling," Tong says.
Schools that will pull out in the coming academic year include Cannan Kindergarten, which operates 10 branches, and St Margaret Mary's Catholic Kindergarten in Happy Valley. St Margaret Mary will start charging HK$3,000 per month from September. That's a big jump for parents who usually pay just HK$620 a month after using a HK$1,680 voucher for the current tuition of HK$2,300.
Fees will no longer be an issue if Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's pledge to extend free education to kindergartens comes to fruition. If free education is extended to 15 years, children from low-income families can continue to attend St Margaret, says Law Wai-mei, preschool sector spokeswoman for the Professional Teachers' Union. For now, their only option is to choose another voucher-scheme school.
Under the scheme, "money follows the parents, which can lead to unhealthy competition among the schools", Law says.
Some schools spend lots of money on promotion and other activities to attract parents' attention and boost enrolment. Others, especially those in ageing districts with shrinking student populations, may not survive.
Law, who is also the principal of a kindergarten in Mong Kok, speaks from experience. "After the voucher scheme was launched, our school, which is in an ageing district and faces immense pressure from famous schools in Kowloon City, has found it harder to admit students."
A major problem with the scheme is that a kindergarten's funding becomes erratic, unlike subsidised primary schools where the flow of funds is more stable, says Gail Yuen Wai-kwan, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education who focuses on education policy.
As a result, some schools struggle to provide basic facilities, with pupils squeezed into small spaces in upper storeys of buildings. "Basic standards in preschool education cannot even be ensured," Yuen says.
At the Hong Kong Kindergarten Association Preschool, principal Connie Lam Shui-ki finds funds are constantly stretched although her kindergarten occupies rent-free premises in Choi Wan Estate provided by the Housing Department.
"Our budget is always tight, but we can't increase fees," Lam says. "We have not had any new computers and desks for a long time. More than 100 of our students require fee remissions in addition to vouchers."
There are no teaching assistants to help cope with their 220 pupils, and the 14 teachers on staff must double up as administrators.
"The rate of teacher loss has been high, especially in the early years after the voucher scheme was launched," Lam says. "The estate we are in is an ageing district, so we face admission pressure."
The preschool sector estimates that implementing free education would cost the government about HK$1 billion annually besides the HK$2 billion it currently spends to support the voucher scheme.
But as many academics see it, the quality gap in kindergarten operations presents a serious obstacle to extending free education to preschools. For example, the premises vary from public housing estates to shopping malls, with monthly rental ranging from a nominal HK$1 fee to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, teachers' salaries can vary from HK$7,500 a month to over HK$40,000. The range in tuition and student populations is just as great.
Law reckons the difficulties in funding such a variety of preschools can be overcome if the government runs them the way it does primary schools, each of which receives operational funding in direct proportion to the number of students enrolled.
Opponents worry this approach will erode diversity among the preschools; approaches range from play-based development to more academically oriented learning.
But Tong says such concerns are unfounded. "The primary and secondary sector encompass international schools and direct subsidy scheme schools, which are semi-private. The kindergarten sector can be run like that, without the government being required to subsidise international nurseries."
One key to implementing free preschool education is setting a salary scale for teachers, Tong says, which will give a big boost to teacher training.
Just 15 per cent of the city's 9,800 kindergarten teachers hold degrees, and only 55 per cent are certified.
"Under the government's pay scale for primary and secondary teachers, salary is commensurate with teaching qualifications and years of experience. But there's no such scale for kindergarten teachers. Schools are free to set their own salaries," Tong says.
"Currently, a kindergarten teacher doesn't need to be a degree holder, but with a pay scale that rewards more qualifications, teachers will have more incentive to pursue further training."
Meanwhile, a 20-member advisory committee set up in April has begun exploring ways to introduce free kindergarten education.
Its chairman, former legislator Moses Cheng Mo-chi, says they recognise the difficulties of running kindergarten on the same lines as primary schools but does not rule the possibility of a centrally administered system.
Still, he says they see benefits in the flexibility that the current system provides and will strive to maintain it.
"Rental is a critical factor in deciding whether a kindergarten can survive - repeated increases can make it unviable," Cheng says.
But while providing subsidised premises is not feasible for the moment, he says the committee is exploring the possibility as a long-term goal to bring "stability" to the system.
The panel isn't expected to present its proposals to government until 2015.
But, recognising kindergartens' difficulties under the voucher scheme, Cheng says, "We will explore interim measures to help them."