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Let’s debate free school lunches

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Dec 08,2010
Local governments are sharply split over next year’s budget because of their differences on free school lunches. Their position on the free-lunch program depends on two factors: which party the head of a local government belongs to and how many seats a political party has in the local councils.

After the Democratic-Party-controlled city council in Seoul unilaterally passed a bill allowing free school meals, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, from the Grand National Party, strongly denounced it as a product of “reckless populism.”

The South Gyeongsang council is the opposite. It cut its school-lunch budget in half. The Gangwon council, meanwhile, supports aid to students from low-income families rather than expanding the free-meal program at schools. Amid the tug of war, civil organizations are joining the fight as well, clashing with their opponents across the country.

Conflict is not an unusual phenomenon when it comes to budgets. But the most important question is how to achieve social justice. If the current dispute deteriorates, it can lead to a strange situation in which students are provided with free lunches in some areas but not in others. We instead should have a standard approach and consensus on the issue.

In Seoul, the city government refuses to cooperate with the city council, while the council is demanding the resignation of the mayor with the Seoul education superintendent harshly criticizing the mayor. As a result, the city administration is nearly paralyzed. We urge both the mayor and the education superintendent to have a head-to-head debate on the issue to find a mutually satisfactory solution.

Of course, the debate should focus first on students and the budget. Both leaders should do their best to come up with concrete ideas on what is the most efficient way to allocate a limited budget for the sake of the students. They should not cling to ideological differences.

Since the Seoul mayor has proposed to education chief Kwak No-hyun that they should have a public debate, Kwak should respond to his offer as soon as possible. It is not desirable for him to reject the mayor’s proposal by thinking that it is a politically motivated move. Kwak’s insistence that with his election, a public consensus was established on the issue is just a self-serving one. How then does Oh’s election as mayor get explained, even though he pledged to fight against the free-lunch program? It is time for both of them to meet to talk things over, not to exchange verbal attacks.



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