Millions of migrant workers who travel to work in China's richest cities are increasingly raising their voices in protest over discriminatory practices by local schools, using legal channels to argue that their children should be able to come along too.
China's migrant workers are stuck with an unenviable choice; leave their children behind when they go where the work is, or take them along and risk disrupting their education.
Cheng Hai, a rights lawyer who has supported migrant parents' campaign for equal access to schooling, said China's own laws require schools to offer education to all children.
"In our country, primary school education is compulsory education," Cheng told RFA. "Therefore, compulsory education must also be unconditional in terms of the place of residence of children who follow their parents [outside their hometown]."
He hit out at recent rule changes making it harder for migrant children to get school places in Beijing.
"Any additional conditions are illegal, and in violation of the Compulsory Education Law," Cheng said. "This behavior by local government is an abuse of official power."
Earlier this month, dozens of migrant parents faced off with police outside the Beijing municipal government buildings after they went to protest that local schools were turning their children away.
Schools in the capital city are now requiring parents to have formal contracts with employers and fixed accommodation, which doesn't jibe with workers who are taken on at a day rate and are often forced to go where the work is at short notice.
Reformed Hukou system
Under the pre-2014 system, which dated back to the Mao era of collective farming and a planned economy, every household accessed 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 was supposed to be based on a person's place of residence and job, rather than their birthplace, and officials promised at the time that the transfer of hukou registrations to another place would become possible.
But the promises haven't made life easier for migrants in practice, they told RFA.
Before the reforms, parents needed to produce proof of residence, a family residence booklet, temporary residence permits for Beijing and a household registration document.
In 2014, the city government said migrants were now required to produce proof of employment in Beijing.
Parents say some schools have added their own bureaucratic hurdles for migrants, with some demanding more than 20 pieces of documentation.
On June 30, around 100 parents in the northern Beijing suburb of Changping staged a protest after their children were denied places in Huilongguan primary school in the district.
Parents said they were given so little notice, that they now no longer have time to enroll at another school.
No appeals process
Professor Lan Yun of the Texas Institute of Technology's education department said the demonstrations showed the government hadn't thought through the implications of its actions.
"There should be an appeals process when it comes to changing school districts," Lan said. "It's far too rushed to make a decision of this magnitude with just five days to spare."
Lan said state schools in China should also be regulated by the central government when it comes to the fees they can charge.
"There has been a law regulating compulsory education in China for nine years now," Lan said. "But forcing property developers to build new schools, or to make it clear what sort of educational provision there will be for children living in the area isn't the way to achieve this.
"This comes within the remit of the government, not the property developer."
Calls to the Beijing municipal government rang unanswered on the day of the protest.
Migrant workers who move to towns and cities to seek work in factories say they are often treated as unwelcome interlopers, while their children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
China has nearly 20 million children aged under 14 who have followed their migrant-worker parents to cities, according to the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund.
In November 2012, the deaths of five "left-behind" children of absent migrant workers in a dumpster in the southwestern province of Guizhou caused a public outcry.
Reported by Yang Fan and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.