China spends too little on schools and discriminates against the children of poor migrant workers, according to a stinging critique by a United Nations' education official.
China is near the bottom among nations in public education funding, despite its claims of near-universal school enrolment and the elimination of widespread illiteracy, said Katarina Tomasevski, who was assessing China's compliance with international human rights obligations in education.
She said Beijing is not meeting its education obligations under human rights agreements, especially by failing to provide schooling for children of rural workers who move to cities.
Millions of migrants have flocked to China's cities in search of jobs.
Their children are often excluded from schools or charged higher fees than urban students. The government has closed schools set up for migrants.
"The fees being charged - both legal and illegal - are considerable, and the obstacles to education for poor kids are considerable, including in Beijing," said Ms Tomasevski at a news conference last week.
Chinese law demands free, compulsory nine-year education, but it is unclear about additional fees. Since 1985, many local governments have charged "incidental fees" to make up for funding shortfalls.
China spends the equivalent of just 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on education - just one-third the level recommended by the UN Economic Social and Cultural Organisation, said Ms Tomasevski.
Government budgets cover only 53 per cent of the cost of education, requiring families or other private sources to pay the other 47 per cent, she said.
China claims to have largely wiped out illiteracy since the start of Communist rule in 1949, and says more than 90 per cent of primary-age children attend schools.
Two decades of economic reforms, however, have seen education slide down government list of priorities. In the poorer western regions, rural families routinely go into debt to pay for basic education, said Ms Tomasevski, describing the situation in parts of the countryside as "desperate".
Ms Tomasevski said she was impressed by the thirst for learning evident among students browsing at bookstores. Chinese parents often go to extremes to ensure their children receive a good education, she said.
She called for stronger legal guarantees to make it easier for local authorities and individuals to sue for promised funding and legal education rights.
China needs to investigate fees charged by schools, which can range from 1,000 to 20,000 yuan (US$125-2,400), she said.
Only two weeks ago Chinese premier Wen Jiabao announced a five-year campaign to provide secondary schooling for 85 per cent of children in its mountainous west where 300 million people live - including Tibetans and Turkic Muslims, groups who have, throughout history, challenged Beijing's rule with uprisings and independence movements.
The proportion of children in primary schools falls considerably below 90 per cent in poor mountainous or desert areas in the west - reaching just 78 per cent in Tibet. High-school enrolments are even lower - just 64 per cent in the south-western province of Yunnan compared to 99 per cent in Beijing and Shanghai, according to government figures.