WHO SHOULD BEAR the heavy cost of education for hundreds of thousands of migrant children in Shenzhen? Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu, faces a deficit of 200 million yuan (about HK$189 million) in educating its 420,000 children. Decision-makers in the economic zone are facing a similar fate. China's constitution entitles every child of school age to nine years of compulsory education. The chosen city of a migrant is also supposed to be responsible for providing such free education for their children, according to government regulations. City officials fear this obligation could prove to be too expensive and a costly burden on the Shenzhen public education system. Shenzhen would have to build 49 new schools to cope with the rising demand, translating into millions in unbudgeted costs, according to the city's education bureau. Yu Youjun, the mayor of Shenzhen, has rebuffed a proposal that the city should make its schools available for all residents, arguing that private schools are the 'golden key' to the problem. The issue has become particularly acute in Shenzhen, where close to 60 per cent of all primary and secondary students come from non-resident families. It was pointed out by Zhang Zhifeng, a Shenzhen People's Congress delegate, that non-residents also contribute to the economy and prosperity of Shenzhen. Their children should be entitled to receive public education. Others, like She Guozhi, a Shenzhen People's Public Consultative Conference member, feel the key element should be whether the parent is a taxpayer, rather than just a permanent resident. In Shenzhen, more than four million out of the seven million population do not have the city's permanent residency permits. So nearly 60 per cent - or 270,000 of the 456,000 students of school age - are from non-resident families. Of these, more than 100,000 have difficulties receiving proper education, according to the delegates. In terms of cost, the state gives 420 yuan for each primary-school student and 680 yuan for each high-school pupil, according to Jiang Danyu, Shenzhen education bureau chief. The local government and schools are reluctant to accept children from non-resident families unless they are going to be compensated. The economics of the issue have become a harsh reality for non-residents. Many have to fork out significant sums for their children's education. A large number of these workers are low-paid labourers. As a result, private schools have become a fast-growing but chaotic industry. According to statistics, private schools have accommodated more than 100,000 students, equivalent to one quarter of all primary and secondary pupils. According to people's congress delegates and local media reports, these schools are usually of lower quality. Many lack key facilities and equipment such as computers, laboratories, reading materials and video and audio units. Most have no dormitories, canteens or sports facilities. Some are dubbed 'shack' schools as they were built in warehouses or abandoned buildings. They tend to be vulnerable to typhoons, rain storms and fires. The quality of teachers has been criticised for being 'uneven' and generally lower than that of government schools, according to Yang Jianchang, a Shenzhen People's Congress delegate. He tabled a motion on privately run education. 'The salary level of teachers for private schools is also lower and turnover rates are high,' he said. 'Students are the biggest casualties.' A private primary school in Longhua, Shenzhen was forced to close down last month after the schoolmaster ran away with the school fees. More than 100 students were left without a school. Shenzhen is drafting a new law to regulate and manage the privately run schools, according to the mayor Mr Yu. The Government has also said it intended to have measures to assist development of private schools, but it did not give a figure. Education for migrant children is not only a serious issue for Shenzhen, but for other areas with a large floating population. According to the Nanfang Daily, Guangdong has more than one million migrant children among its 20 million floating population. Areas such as Jiangsu province on the east coast face a similar challenge. But observers say the issue goes deeper than simply providing basic education for children. It should also form part of the government infrastructure in its attempts in urbanisation and reduction of the wealth gap between the city and rural residents. 'It is part of the cost the Government has to bear for removing millions of farmers off their land. Education of migrant children must be part of the consideration,' Beijing University economist Professor Wang Wing said.