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PEVS: A Milestone for What?

Preschool vouchers have ruptured the field of ECEC in Hong Kong in multiple ways. In October 2006, the HKSAR government announced and implemented a preschool voucher policy promising quality and affordability in ECEC for all children and positioned this scheme as a “new milestone of kindergarten education” (Education Bureau, 2015). All children (between 3 and 6 years old) became “eligible” for vouchers as long as they were attending nonprofit preschools for halfday programs. Although all preschools are private, this voucher policy has drawn a line of distinction between different types of private preschools by excluding independent preschools from the voucher scheme. Therefore, this voucher scheme has different meanings for different stakeholders in the field of ECEC.

For parents or families with children in the preprimary sector, this voucher policy brings “government/public” funding in the form of tuition reimbursement. All children are qualified as long as they are

“legal” residents of Hong Kong when their parents or families make the “right” choice of selecting nonprofit preschools regardless of their household income levels. Hence, what does this voucher policy mean for different groups of parents and educators?

For preschools, this voucher policy brings in government regulations. In order for a preschool to be “voucher worthy,” it needs to meet several criteria and regulations. It has to be a nonprofit preschool that does not make more than a 15 percent profit, and it has to implement the official Guide to Pre-Primary Curriculum (Curriculum Development Council, 2006). Additionally, preschools need to open their doors, allowing official government inspectors to come into the preschools for quality inspection, as a means of quality assurance. Contrary to the typical neoliberal logic that promotes decentralization and deregulation to “loosen up” the government monopoly of education, this Hong Kong version of the preschool voucher policy has introduced more regulation with centralized government control into the field of ECEC. Therefore, how does this voucher policy “change” the landscape of ECEC in Hong Kong?

For the HKSAR government, this voucher scheme has been positioned as an initiative supporting families with young children as well as ensuring quality preschool education. Particularly, this voucher scheme has served as a benchmark through which “official” recognition of the importance of ECEC is emphasized. Coming from the government into parents’ pockets as tuition reimbursement, this preschool voucher scheme has been articulated as a form of government interest/public investment in children’s quality education and care. The government has constructed this voucher scheme as a solution to address accessibility and affordability in the private sector by increasing regulation and initiating official inspections of nonprofit preschools with the hope of ensuring a “quality education” for all children.

The introduction of a voucher policy in the private sector of education at the preprimary level has complicated the field of ECEC in Hong Kong. Ironically, a trendy, new parental practice anchored on the global theme of “invest in children’s education” has been reappropriated in Hong Kong by sending children to two different kindergartens while “seeing” vouchers as covering the expenses for one kindergarten. Several investigative news reports have highlighted that some families take “advantage” of this preschool voucher scheme for a half-day “free” nonprofit preschool education in addition to whatever types of private international preschool education the parents are already paying for at their own expense (e.g., see China Daily, 2013; Hong Kong Young Women’s Christian Association [HKYWCA], 2013; The Oriental Daily, 2011). However, this is not exclusive to upper-middle-class families in Hong Kong. According to a recent study in Hong Kong using parental surveys, about 20 percent of children are attending two different preschools on a daily basis in Tin Shui Wai (see HKYWCA, 2013). It is important to note that Tin Shui Wai was socially constructed as a “city of sadness” in the early 2000s for its high unemployment and suicide rates (Asia Sentinel, 2007; Savela, 2013). What this recent survey has reflected is the pervasiveness of the dominant discourse on investing in children’s early education.

In summary, this case of a preschool voucher scheme in Hong Kong illustrates how it ruptures the field of ECEC by increasing government regulation and control while interjecting a new narrative of ECEC as investment through which intelligibility of children as human capital is fabricated.

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