Commentary / Japan

Rich or poor, every child has a right to a quality education

by Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell

The funding system for public schools in the United States relies heavily on local property taxes. Property values vary considerably from neighborhood to neighborhood, district to district. This means that children who may need the most help in school in fact receive the least, since they live in areas with cheap housing and correspondingly low tax contributions.

For example, one school in a poverty-stricken district reports that while there may be four or five stalls in the girls’ bathroom, only one might be in working order. Another described broken windows, peeling paint and cracked floors that cannot be repaired due to budget constraints. Yet another said it cannot even provide chalks and toilet paper — never mind textbooks for each student.

With regard to elementary schools, they often cannot afford to hire teachers for non-core subjects such as music, physical education and art, and therefore students never have proper lessons in them.

In contrast, public schools in wealthy residential areas have very different situations. At one school food fair, a world-famous chef was invited to prepare cuisine for the students. Hefty annual fees for parents’ association are being used to buy new digital tools, fund school trips and other such things. Donations to such schools can reach $1 million a year, and generous funding by parents can result in their children’s names carved on chairs in the school’s auditorium. What a difference!

In fact, 22 percent of children in the U.S. are from families living under the poverty line, and 22 million students are in the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey carried out by the OECD and aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing skills and knowledge in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem-solving and financial literacy in over half a million 15-year-old students in 72 countries and economies. Students in U.S. schools where the ratio of children eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program is less than 10 percent scored at the top-level in most subjects, whereas the scores of those students in schools where 75 percent or more of the students are in the subsidized lunch program are near the bottom of the survey’s rankings.

This is evidence that economic disparities result in educational disparities. Is this only the case in the U.S.? What about Japan?

In Japan, 13.9 percent of children aged 17 or younger — about 2.8 million or one out of every seven — are from families with incomes below the poverty line. And some studies show there is a clear relationship between schoolchildren’s academic performance and their families’ socio-economic status.

These days, families relocating for the education of children is not uncommon in Tokyo, especially in certain areas. In some public schools 20-30 percent of the students have moved into those areas from other parts of the metropolis for the purpose of being able to attend the elementary schools in the area. According to a realtor in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, most of the households who relocate to the ward for the purpose of their children’s education earn more than ¥10 million a year — and many of the parents are dual-income office workers.

The public schools they choose are the ones that are well known for the fact that many of their students go on to attend private junior high schools. The key reason for moving, given to the realtor by the parents, is not that the content of education is different from that given at the schools in the areas where they originally lived, but that it has to do with the influence of classmates — many of whom go to cram schools — which motivates their own children to study harder. At such schools few children come from poor backgrounds — which is not surprising given the extra cost of extracurricular studies such as cram schools.

Many private junior high schools in Tokyo hold their annual entrance examination on Feb. 1. On that date, in certain schools in Bunkyo and Chuo wards, less than 10 percent of the students attend classes because most students are taking the exams. One teacher at such a school said that this year only two students attended his class that day.

A recent study by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute had a disturbing conclusion. Of the 74,000 guardians of grade 2, 5 and 7 students who go to public schools in 28 prefectures, only 34.3 percent said they considered it to be a problem that children from higher-income families receive a better education — meaning that the remaining roughly 65 percent did not think it was an issue. In fact, 62.3 percent of the respondents agreed that economic disparity resulting in the gap in children’s education is unavoidable and is indeed “only natural.” Furthermore, 85 percent of them replied that they think the rich-poor gap in Japan will only widen in the future. Such a perception is quite worrying.

Article 3 of the Fundamental Law of Education says that everyone must be given opportunities to receive an equal education without discrimination by race, creed, gender, social position, economic position or family status. Children are the future and we all share the responsibility for their education. Economic disparities should not be allowed to create a gap in their education.

Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell is the founder and chair of Tokyo International School. She serves as the International Baccalaureate Japan ambassador and as adviser on revitalization of education commissioned by the education ministry.