The Leung Chun-ying government likes to advertise it is the first to introduce free kindergarten education. But that's misleading. In effect, it has extended the directly subsidized school model from primary and secondary schools to kindergartens.
That's a very different beast and its effects will not be the same as having genuinely free schools. They will have real implications for social equity and equal opportunity. Yet, by not calling the new subsidized system for what it is, we will not be having a proper debate.
Hong Kong used to have a simple model for free, compulsory primary and secondary schooling. But after the city's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after more than a century of British colonial rule, and because of the failed government education reform and the backlash against it, there has been a rapid expansion of the number of subsidized schools.
Previously, schools were free as they were mostly government or aided schools. Now, many schools, especially those that are famous or considered "elite", have switched to subsidized status. After all, what's not to like?
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You get comparable government funding per student, but you can modify curricula and charge new fees. You are also free to raise money from non-government sources.
There was once a relatively equalitarian school system. Now, middle and upper middle-class families like to send their children to subsidized "elite" schools, or those under the English Schools Foundation and the super-expensive international schools.
While international schools do not receive direct cash subsidies, almost all have enjoyed free land grants and token land rents, and/or low-interest loans. These amount to public subsidies. All that leaves low-income families with is public schools.
Now, the subsidized school model is being extended to kindergartens.
Half-day kindergartens will receive a subsidy of HK$33,190 per pupil, while whole-day ones will get HK$43,150 to HK$53,100. In theory, that's more than enough to cover the majority of schools for toddlers.
However, about one in five half-day kindergartens will be allowed to charge extra fees, while all whole-day kindergartens may do so under the scheme.
You can be sure many schools that have a good reputation or are considered academically advanced will impose new charges. You can argue there is nothing wrong with that. Those who can pay may want more choices. Those who can't can attend free schools. Well, maybe so.
But far from being egalitarian, the new policy may introduce more elitism into early childhood education.