Many counties in Western China have launched 15-year 'free' education policies since 2010 to provide the 3-year free early childhood education (ece). To understand the affordability, accessibility, accountability, and sustainability of these policies, we sampled the four counties in Shanxi and Shaanxi province that were the first cohort to implement free ece policies: Yulin, Ningshan, Zuoyun, and Changzhi. A multiple-case online research was conducted and the results indicated that: (1) the 'free' education policies are neither 'all kids free' nor 'all fees free', thus could only partially solve the problem of affordability; (2) the policies did not solve the problems related to school place allocation, which in turn, tended to exacerbate the issue of accessibility and inequality in educational opportunities; (3) no monitoring and quality assurance mechanisms were launched to improve the accountability of kindergartens; and (4) the policies are unlikely to be sustainable as the ece budget entirely relies on the fiscal investment at the county level. Implications of these findings were discussed and some suggestions were made.
- free early childhood education