As millions of Chinese students head back to kindergartens, schools, and colleges across the country this week, residents are complaining that the prices of homes in sought-after school districts are rising out of the reach of many.
The price rises come as authorities in a number of major cities implement changes to the way in which primary schools admit students, basing the criteria on geographical boundaries rather than test results.
Between now and 2015, more than 90 percent of elementary school places in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shandong, Fujian, Guangdong, and 13 other pilot locations will be awarded on the basis of the child's home address, official media reported.
A number of parents hoping to enroll their children in sought-after schools are now being squeezed out by skyrocketing home prices, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The demand for places is boosted by the fact that certain elementary schools carry a guarantee of a place at prestigious urban high schools, meaning that one's address in childhood could affect one's access to educational opportunity for years to come.
Liu Kaiming, who directs the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern city of Shenzhen, said the new rules could lead to greater inequalities in China's already highly competitive education system.
"This is a question of an imbalance in the distribution of educational resources," Liu said. "The majority of resources are concentrated in the most sought-after schools, while the rest are under-resourced."
"A lot of parents will pick the school that has the best test results, and so the competition spreads back down the line into earlier stages of the educational process."
Such is the pressure of demand on the best-performing schools that parents will often do anything they can, including relocating, to ensure their child gets into a sought-after school.
Schools will often place huge bureaucratic burdens on parents applying for a place, including requiring residence permits, health insurance, and other documentation in support of a student application.
"My friend ... told me the local primary school had suddenly upped its requirements from five different documents to seven, and that she would have to travel to a school 15 kilometers (nine miles) from here because, as an out-of-towner, he had no way of getting them," Beijing resident and rights activist Hu Jia told RFA.
"Now, the couple is living apart ... and they've rented an apartment so the elder daughter can go to school, while the younger one lives separately with her mother in [Beijing] to attend kindergarten," Hu said.
In spite of partial reforms to China's "hukou," or household registration system, access to education in top-tier cities remains restricted to those whose children were born there, and who can present the right documentation, most of which depends on the "hukou."
Last month, authorities in the southern city of Foshan denied permission to a couple to register their daughter there, claiming she was the result of an "excess birth" under China's draconian "one child" family planning policies.
Yang Yan, the mother of the girl, said her daughter, born in October 2012, would be denied access to education in the city without it, and the family is currently challenging the government's decision.
"I think this is tragic," Yang told RFA in an interview in early August. "I am a Chinese citizen, and yet they can take away even my right to have a child."
"Now, I'm supposed to pay hundreds of thousands to procure citizenship for my child?" she said. "We are already mortgage slaves, with a mortgage of hundreds of thousands, and we haven't got the money to pay their fines, so they've prevented our kid from being registered."
China announced in July it would remove restrictions on anyone wishing to move to smaller towns and cities to find work and educate their children, while strengthening "protection" of its major cities and mega-cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing.
But rights campaigners, who have long campaigned for the hukou system to be abolished, said the limited reforms don't go far enough to allow the country's hundreds of millions of rural residents fair access to crucial services—including education—in cities.
In a legal opinion on the household registration, or "hukou," system, China's cabinet, the State Council, said the moves were aimed at encouraging rural people to migrate to cities to find work and education.
Under the current system, which dates back to the Mao era of collective farming and a planned economy, every household accesses services from its place of registration, posing huge social problems for China's hundreds of millions of migrant workers and their families.
The reformed hukou system will be based on a person's place of residence and job, rather than their birthplace, and transfer of hukou registrations will now become possible, the State Council said.
Under the new rules, anyone wishing to apply for a hukou in small towns and cities of less than 500,000 residents who has a job and a place to live should be able to do so, along with their dependents.
In larger cities with populations of up to one million, hukou applications will be granted, but with possible additional conditions, including payment of urban social security for a minimum period.
Cities where competition for hukou is fierce may add further conditions, but are theoretically banned from linking them to personal wealth or property ownership, although property prices alone are likely to limit access.
Reported by Lin Ping and Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.