After South Gyeongsang Governor Hong Joon-pyo announced Monday that he would stop funding free school lunch programs in the province, other heads of local governments, including the cities of Ulsan and Incheon, are poised to follow in his footsteps. If local governments stop financial assistance to primary, middle and high schools across the country, the free school meal program must run entirely on the budgets of local education offices. Though the situation may vary depending on where schools are located, more than 200,000 students in South Gyeongsang alone will be affected when city and county governments in the province discontinue their funding of the free lunch program.
On the surface, the declaration by Gov. Hong to cease funding for the program stemmed from the simmering conflict he had with the South Gyeongsang Office of Education. After the local government announced a plan to check if its financial support, amounting to a fourth of the entire budget for the program, is well spent, the provincial education office rejected the idea, which it called “interference.” It attacked the proposal, saying “it shakes the very foundations of universal welfare,” a concept that is increasingly gaining momentum in this country despite opposition from conservative forces.
However, the fiscal plight of local governments has reached too serious a level to attribute the conflict to a brawl between municipal governments and education offices or to friction over welfare policies between conservative and liberal groups. Last year, 17 local education offices across the nation put all their eggs in one basket, the free school lunch program, after spending a whopping 2.3 trillion won ($2.13 billion). The money for the program doled out by city and provincial governments has already exceeded 1 trillion won.
Moreover, municipal governments have the obligation to see if the money they offered to their education offices was properly spent, even though they are not legally obliged to provide education offices with the funds for the lunch program. In this respect, Gov. Hong has rightly exercised his power as head of a local government.
In the wake of Hong’s declaration, our society must start a thorough re-examination of the government’s universal welfare programs. Municipal education offices also need to consider policies aimed at reducing free school meals for the wealthy rather than demanding unconditional aid from local governments. When government coffers dry up, universal welfare is impossible. It is time to put a dangerous populist policy to rest before it’s too late.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 5, Page 30