Ningshan county, in southern Shaanxi province, has begun offering 15 years of free schooling to children this year, making it the first impoverished county in the country to do so.
The change means the county will have to put 40 percent of its annual revenue into schools. China's Compulsory Education Law stipulates that children should receive nine years of free schooling, taking them from primary school to junior middle school. Starting this month, though, children in Ningshan county will be able to go to school for 15 years without paying, said Shi Gongfu, director of the county's education bureau.
He said the county's 33 kindergartens now enroll 2,040 children, who are between the ages of 3 to 6. Because of the policy change, their parents are now expected to save 900 yuan ($141) a year. Families from rural areas will also receive 3 yuan a day from the government to pay for the children's daily expenses.
"This new policy means the government will pay 2.4 million yuan a year for children," Shi said.
The county started reforming its school system in 2007. The next year, it offered free professional training to local farmers and, the year after that, free attendance at senior middle schools. Its recent decision to pay for kindergarten is what has brought the number of years of free schooling available to the 9,146 school-age children in the county to 15.
Ye Ziyin, 58, a farmer in the county's Guan'er village, said he is glad he can save the money he would have spent sending his 3-year-old grandson to kindergarten this month.
"My son and daughter-in-law work as migrant workers in other provinces and I take care of my grandson," Ye said. "Our only income is my son's wages and the education fees are a burden to us. So I'm very happy that my grandson can go to kindergarten for free."
The Shaanxi provincial government has required the local governments under it to provide a year of free schooling to preschool-aged children starting this September.
Ningshan county has a population of 74,000 and lies deep in the Qinling mountains. In 2010, its annual revenue amounted to 30.75 million yuan.
"Last year, we put about 13 million yuan into schools, which was 40 percent of our local revenue," said Zou Chengyan, mayor of Ningshan county.
That was much more than the 12.5 percent of local revenue that is spent on average for the same purpose throughout the country.
To put more resources toward schools, the county government has restricted expenditures of public money and prohibited county officials from buying official cars.
During the past four years, the county has collected about 150 million yuan for building and repairing 45,000 sq m of school buildings, Zou said.
Wang Guoqi, director of the Xi'an academy of social sciences' sociology institute, said free schooling is more important in impoverished places than rich ones.