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Most of China’s kindergartens are illegal and unlicensed, and that can be fatal for kids

Earlier this month, two Chinese girls aged 5 and 6 were killed after eating yogurt laced with rat poison. It was revealed later that the yogurt had been poisoned and planted by two staffers at a rival kindergarten hoping to damage the reputation of the girls’ school.

The death of children is even more tragic for families in China, many of which are restricted by family planning laws to having only one child.  Over the past two years, primary-school students have been the target of several stabbings and other violent sprees. Chinese officials and sociologists have had difficulty explaining the root of those attacks or how to prevent them. Some attribute them to poor mental-health care in the country. As a preventative measure, some fathers have taken to forming protective perimeters around school children as they walk to school.

The roots of the latest death can be traced back to a specific problem. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, both schools were private, unlicensed for-profit kindergartens. Although these are illegal, regulators have looked the other way as the number of these pre-schools has grown in response to demand from Chinese families with more money to spend on early education. They now make up the majority of Chinese kindergartens. (Because kindergarten is not part of China’s compulsory education, regulated and better-quality government funded pre-schools are fewer, mostly in cities, and difficult to get into.) In 2008, about 61% (pdf) of China’s kindergartens were privately run; 80% of new kindergartens added in 2011 were private.

The dangerous part is that more of them are cropping up in rural areas like Lianghe, where the two girls were killed this month. Teachers at these schools aren’t likely to be qualified and families know little about the need for trained instructors. A principal at one of the kindergartens said she was the most qualified of her staff because she had earned a high school degree, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Things could get better. The Chinese government appears to care about pre-school education, having pledged in 2010 that 95% of Chinese children should get one year or more of early education. Authorities have also pledged to increase public funding to kindergartens so that at least 40 million Chinese students will be enrolled by 2020.

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