History after 1949

Shortly after the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Communist government was confronted with heavy educational disparities across the nation. In the years following the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese government attempted to address these disparities with alternating approaches, creating periods of differing emphasis on opposing educational models. The first model, based on egalitarianism, emphasizes equality across regions of varying economic wealth and development. Conversely, the second model, based on competition, emphasizes individualistic competition, rationalizing any existing educational disparities as a necessary sacrifice for national economic development.

The Chinese government also focused educational policies on higher education and specialized training, leaving basic education underdeveloped throughout large parts of the country. Government funding for education was reserved for urban areas; rural communities, already at an economic disadvantage, were left to fund their own schools, exacerbating the already existing divide between urban and rural education. When collectivization policies passed in 1955, placing rural families into agricultural cooperatives that distributed income on the basis of labor hours, the importance of education dropped even further within these rural communities, and they were much less likely to fund primary education for the children of their communities.

Also beginning in the 1950s, the hukou system assigned the Chinese population into urban and rural regions, exacerbating continuously worsening inequalities within health, employment, housing, and education. Further complicating education policy, people of rural-hukou status are able to live and work in urban areas without changing their hukou designation. According to Xiaogang Wu's tabulation, based on figures from the 2000 Chinese Census, an estimated 33% of city residents were actually designated as rural-hukou holders.

A significant shift in education finance policy occurred in 1982 with the introduction of decentralization, in which provincial governments were now individually in control of financing education within their region. The change in policy sought to capitalize on rapid income growth by funding education from non-governmental sources, and in the 1980s and 1990s, the government share of education expenditures dropped even as total education expenditures increased. As a result, families had to pay increased tuition and fees, and schools turned to surcharges and social contributions to fund themselves. Education for children of poorer families was only attainable with state subsidies, which often did not reach the families who were most in need. Tuition and fees also increase as students move from lower to higher grade levels, so even if these poorer students were able to move through the education system, many were prevented from even completing their compulsory education by economic barriers. Additionally, this shift to a wider financial base for education also coincided with rising interprovincial inequality, significantly impairing education opportunities for children in poorly developed rural provinces.

Although basic education policies remain in control of the Communist Party, increased open-mindedness shown by party authorities indicates the possibility of more substantial educational reform, in addition to recent reforms to the national college entrance examination. Although educational inequality has lessened overall, great gaps in educational attainment still exist between populations on multiple divides, affirming the need for a regional focus within reform initiatives.

Gender stratification
Although recent studies have shown reductions in gender inequality within Chinese education since the 1980s, disparities still remain across different regions of China. Studies have indicated that education in rural areas of China shows significantly greater gender disparity than education in urban areas. Since 1981, the rural illiteracy rate of females has consistently been over twice that of males, despite an overall decrease in illiteracy in rural regions.

However, with rapid economic growth, the increase of parental income enables more children to obtain at least a basic education, and this greatly increases chances of girls going to school as well. Previously, it was common for parents to prioritize the education of sons over that of their daughters; with greater opportunities, the demand for female education can be easier satisfied, fueling an increase in the actual demand for female education as well.

Geographical stratification
There are a number of factors that contribute to the existing disparities between urban and rural education, with the latter lagging far behind the former as a result of economic, social, and political disparities. The underfunding of rural schools, inadequate government efforts to provide financial aid for rural students, and the current household registration system all contribute to the urban-rural educational divide.

Interprovincial inequality in school funding has increased, along with increased dependence in non-budgeted funding sources. Research indicates that the disparity between provincial primary educational expenditures per student nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000. Additionally, while overall illiteracy rates have dropped since 1980, the disparity between urban and rural illiteracy rates continued to increase, with the rural illiteracy rate double that of urban areas in 2000.

Another recent problem causing regional education disparity is the migration of a large portion of China's rural population into urban areas. In many rural regions, particularly within smaller rural towns, this decrease in population also creates problems for schools. As a result, to confront drastic increases in enrollment, many schools consolidate students of multiple grade levels into multigrade classes, a practice that not only challenges teachers, but also negatively affects the quality of education that students receive.

As a result of the vast numbers of rural workers migrating to the cities to find employment opportunities, many children are left behind, keeping these children in rural schools that still lag far behind their urban counterparts. For rural children who do follow their parents to urban areas, the hukou system bars them from attending urban public schools; these children often must attend private schools that charge higher tuition even while offering subpar education.

Ethnic stratification
The population of China

mainly consists of the Han ethnic majority, with 55 ethnic minorities accounting for around 8% of the total population. However, this small minority population accounts for almost half of China's absolute poor, highlighting the severe income inequality that exists between China's majority Han population and numerous minority groups. At the same time, research indicates that minority education attainment in urban areas, such as Beijing, is on par with Han population attainment.

While overall enrollment rates have risen for both the Han Chinese population and the Chinese minority population, minority enrollment rates remain lower than that of the Han majority population. Aside from enrollment rates, ethnic disparities in education have also manifested in the form of cultural marginalization, especially with the emergence of state-sponsored curriculum that enforces assimilation. To preserve individual cultures and languages, many ethnic groups have created multilingual school systems.