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Lack of kindergartens hampers China's efforts to spark baby boom

Many couples balk at having more kids despite end of one-child policy

Low pay is one reason it is so hard for kindergartens in China to find teachers. (Photo by Daisuke Harashima)

DALIAN, China -- A couple of years after China officially ended its decades-old one-child policy, it has hit a snag in effort to increase the birthrate and meet the serious demographic challenges facing the country.

A shortage of public kindergartens and high fees for private preschools are giving many young Chinese couples second thoughts about having a second child. Unless officials can persuade more parents to do so, the country will continue to age rapidly.

The government is struggling to open new public kindergartens as a dearth of teachers leaves ever more young children without access to affordable preschool education. Private kindergartens charge fees five times higher than their public counterparts, presenting a huge financial challenge for many families who want their children enrolled in such preschools.

Minding the minders

Low pay and grueling working conditions makes finding kindergarten teachers hard. It can also lead to other problems. Yang Ming, a man in his mid-30s who works at a financial institution, was recently surprised to see his 3-year-old daughter come home from kindergarten crying.

Soon afterward, he received a call from a teacher who said his daughter had communication difficulties. The teacher kept making calls, informing him and his wife of their daughter's "problems."

Then one of Yang's acquaintances told him the calls were a sign the teacher was looking for a handout. Yang got the message: He brought 2,000 yuan ($305) to the teacher the next day. Suddenly the child's problems disappeared. The teacher's attitude changed overnight and his daughter was again happy to be in school.

The problem of kindergarten teachers abusing children to feather their nests is fairly widespread. Yang said he now regrets not choosing a private school for his daughter despite the high fees.

China saw an uptick in births following the end of its one-child policy, but the number is expected to start falling again in 2019. (Photo by Daisuke Harashima)

The bottleneck caused by the teacher shortage threatens to derail the government's efforts to deal with the demographic challenges posed by the aging of the population and low birthrates.

Wrenching choices

Han Yue, a man in his early 30s who works in Dalian, has put his 3-year-old son into a private kindergarten. "It is difficult to get your child enrolled in the first place, and I was also worried about bad effects [of a public school] on my child," Han said.

Han and wife together earn 10,000 yuan a month, which makes them a family of average means in the city. The private preschool their son attends costs 2,500 yuan a month. They first considered enrolling their son in a cheaper public kindergarten that charges about 500 yuan a month, but the only public school with a good reputation nearby is reserved for residents of an area where land prices are nearly twice as high as where the Hans live.

Another public kindergarten they considered has only three teachers for each class of 40 children. The couple ruled out that school because their son has food allergies. They thought the number of children per teacher at the school was too large for their son to receive the special attention he needs.

"Considering our financial situation, we cannot afford a second child," Han said.

Who's watching the kids?

In China, kindergartens are the only educational institutions that look after preschool-age children. Children must be at least 3 years old to enroll.

Many couples both work, and the grandparents of the children often take them to and from kindergarten. There used to be few nursery schools in rural areas. But many facilities have been built in recent years in farming villages, raising the share of preschool-age children in kindergartens to 77% nationwide. While Chinese parents have a fearsome reputation when it comes to educating their kids, they tend to be nonchalant about preschool. As a result, most kindergartens in the country focus on child care.

The Chinese Communist Party introduced the one-child policy in 1979 to curb population growth in the face of a food crisis. The policy succeeded in lowering birthrates, but it also created a raft of social problems.

The country's working-age population has already started shrinking, while the ranks of the elderly have grown. People aged 65 or older now make up more than 10% of China's total population.

In response to a looming demographic crunch, Beijing started easing the one-child policy in 2013. Since the end of 2015, all couples have been permitted to have a second child. The policy shift created a spike in births: In 2016, number the births rose by 1.31 million versus the previous year to 17.86 million.

But the shortage of kindergartens is straining the finances of many families with preschool children. There are only about 86,000 public kindergartens for 44.13 million pupils nationwide, creating fierce competition for admission to public institutions. Many parents try to get their children into preschools through the back door, using money or connections.

There are some 150,000 private kindergartens in China, but they are costly. Fees eat up a quarter of the monthly income of the average household. In many cases, grandparents end up shouldering part of the financial burden.

Two too much

Wang Han, a government worker in her late 20s with a household monthly income of about 10,000 yuan, has spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to care for her 3-year-old son. She has given up the idea of enrolling her son in a public kindergarten because he gets sick easily and there are many sniffly children at public schools.

The pay is so bad, despite the heavy social responsibility we have

female kindergarten teacher in her 30s

Her son's private kindergarten costs 3,000 yuan a month, putting a big dent in her family's budget. Her parents have come to their rescue by chipping in. In addition to kindergarten fees, there are many other costs involved in raising children -- extracurricular lessons, toys, safe food. The Wangs have resigned themselves to the fact that they cannot handle a second child, financially or physically.

The main reason for the shortage of public kindergartens is the difficulty of finding teachers to staff them. The number of kindergarten teachers rose 8.6% in 2016 from the previous year to 2.49 million, according to the Ministry of Education. But the growth rate has been trending down. "The pay is so bad, despite the heavy social responsibility we have," complained one female kindergarten teacher in her 30s.

She is busy caring for and teaching the children during the day. Her evenings are devoted to preparing for special events and attending mandatory training. And then there are the incessant demands of the children's parents. "If there are 100 parents we receive 100 different requests," she said. Despite all these responsibilities, her monthly pay is 3,500 yuan, less than the city average.

The Chinese government is working to build more public kindergartens, while subsidizing private ones to keep their fees down. But so far, little has been done to deal with the shortage of teachers, which is at the heart of the problem.

In all likelihood, it will be a long time, if ever, before ordinary Chinese couples feel confident about having a second child. The China Industrial Information Network, a research specialist, predicts 20.23 million babies will be born in China in 2017. But the number will start declining in 2019, it forecasts, sinking to 16.41 million in 2021.

If the difficulties parents have finding good child care continues, the number of newborns in China is likely to keep falling. China will then be doomed to follow in Japan's graying footsteps.

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