After buying the Waldorf-Astoria, the General Motors Building, and billions of dollars of U.S. Treasury bonds, the Chinese may be looking to invest in something completely different - a broke and struggling school system.
The head of the Chester Upland School District announced Wednesday that he would travel to China to work out a deal in which an elite school would pour up to a billion dollars into the Delaware County district, which is in state receivership, and the communities it serves.
The state Department of Education has expressed grave reservations about the plan, which might seem too surreal for even Hollywood. It calls for Chinese benefactors to put up staggering amounts of money to turn low-performing schools into elite academies that send students to top universities.
"If we're successful in making this work, it would change the way our district looks," said Joe Watkins, who was appointed the district's receiver by Gov. Corbett.
The plan includes creating two high-tech schools - one a magnet school - where students would have laptops and iPads, learn Mandarin, and travel to China on an exchange program. Watkins said the cash flow would help the district balance its books.
Details of the plan remained murky Wednesday, nor was it clear precisely how the Chinese would benefit, but Watkins said he intended to meet with Tian Gui Lian, president of the Shenzhen Yaohua Experimental School, a top school near Hong Kong, for four days sometime after Thanksgiving.
Watkins was introduced to Tian by a mutual acquaintance - former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican who once represented Delaware County. Tian wanted to link up with a sister school in the United States, Weldon said. "I said, if you really want to make a name for yourself, why not take the most distressed school in the region and turn it around?" Weldon recalled.
Pictures on the Chinese school's website show a gleaming campus where students focus on math and foreign language, and also study music, information technology, culture, calligraphy, art, and English.
Students participate in foreign-exchange programs around the world. The website said its sister schools include the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston and others in Canada, Taiwan, and England.
Larry Trout, an assistant principal at the Houston school, said the schools parted ways about eight years ago. He said he didn't know why the relationship ended.
In Chester Upland, the partnership would go well beyond student trips. Watkins said that the Chinese would rehabilitate existing district buildings or build new schools, and that the district and Tian would work "hand in hand" to run them.
While the district would get an enviable financial boost, the Chinese school is hoping to get the attention of the top universities that its own students want to attend, according to Weldon.
The investors also expressed interest in the EB 5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program, in which visa applicants invest in new commercial enterprises that create or preserve jobs, he said.
Watkins would not say how much his trip would cost. But state officials called it an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
"It's money that should be used in the district for the benefit of students," Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said in an e-mail.
He said that Watkins only recently told the education secretary of his plan, and that he had failed to provide detailed information about the district's recovery plan. "Of great concern to the secretary is why Mr. Watkins has not explored similar programs/offerings that may be available in Southeastern Pennsylvania, across the state, and throughout" the country, Eller said.
But school board member Anthony Johnson said the partnership could help the district, where high charter school enrollment has "drained our finances."
"Our biggest problem is the kids that go to the charters," he said. "The point is to get kids back to the district."