Voters peer closely at education platformsEducation policies are a concern of almost every voter. Before every presidential election, people call for an "education president" and every candidate claims to be just that.
Always in the center of the education debate are the three issues of private education fees, the standardization of high schools and the college entrance exam. The three major candidates, the Grand National Party's Lee Hoi-chang, the Millennium Democratic Party's Roh Moo-hyun and the Democratic Labor Party's Kwon Young-ghil, all say the same thing: The financial burden of private supplementary education is putting too much of a burden on parents, and the public education system must be improved.
But they differ in the details of how they would change things. Mr. Roh wants to keep the basic framework for standardizing high schools while Mr. Lee wants to give more freedom to students in choosing their high schools. Mr. Kwon wants the standardization to be imposed nationwide.
Mr. Lee claims that creating a better environment for students to learn in public schools is the key to minimizing outside education. He has proposed a system to enable students to acquire a guaranteed minimum level of scholastic aptitude.
He wants more English-speaking natives to be invited to teach in schools in order to strengthen English education; that is the subject most in demand at private academies. He also wants to set up first-class universities in every region of the country because he believes that households pay for heavy private education because of the fiery competition to enter a limited number of prestigious universities.
Mr. Roh has proposed to provide free education for children beginning at age 5, and has added a promise to provide free education in commercial high schools and high schools in farming and fisheries areas to lessen the burden on poorer citizens. He has also proposed to offer supplementary classes at schools to lure them away from private tutors. He wants schools to offer additional classes in mainstream subjects along with classes in computers, the creative arts and physical education for students who want them. He wants to set up a fund that would provide low-interest tuition and board loans for college students.
Mr. Kwon says private education has expanded because consumers are looking for an alternative to the poorly funded public school system. In order to get the public system back on its feet, he wants 7 percent of gross domestic product to be set aside for the education finances. In the long run, he hopes to provide free education even at the university level. He calls for a law to forbid discrimination based on what school one's degee is from, and wants to implement a regional quota system for employment.
Mr. Roh is for maintaining the present standardization system in high schools. He opposes leaving education to the market to sort out. Abolishing the standard, he says, would mean middle school students would be caught in the competitive fever high school students now face and trigger a tutoring boom for younger children. He is opposed to independent private high schools because he thinks they breed scholastic and regional discrimination.
Mr. Lee has promised to reform the standardized system. He wants to give more independence to private high schools that meet certain standards in student selection and curriculum management. He wants to increase the number of independent schools and give students freedom of choice in high school selection.
Mr. Kwon thinks high schools should be standardized nationwide. He calls for independent schools to be banned and for special-purpose schools to revert back into normal schools.
The three candidates are all for liberalizing the college entrance system. They have proposed different alternatives for the College Scholastic Ability Test, however.
Mr. Lee wants to keep the present college entrance policy for the time being until a completely liberalized system can be implemented in 2007. He calls for more choices in examination subjects and more opportunities to take the test.
Mr. Roh wants to liberalize the college entrance system to let each school decide for itself how and how many students will be admitted. He also wants more funding for regional schools. The College Scholastic Ability Test would be watered down to an examination checking for minimum scholastic competence.
Mr. Kwon says all centralized entrance examinations should be abolished if the country's education system is to be normalized. He wants qualification tests before giving middle and high school diplomas. He also wants college entrance to be decided by school records, not entrance examinations.
Poll gives policy nod to Roh
According to a new JoongAng Ilbo opinion poll, 60 percent of Koreans want the standardization of high schools to be continued or increased. That support was especially prominent among women and those who have received higher education.
The group that showed the highest support for the gradual abolition of standardization was higher-income respondents; 32 percent wanted standardization done away with.
So the Millennium Democratic Party's Roh Moo-hyun won 45 percent support for his policy to maintain the present system, compared to the 13 percent Grand National Party's Lee Hoi-chang got for his proposal to revise the standardization framework.
Mr. Lee says he wants more independent schools to be opened and for parents to have a bigger voice in choosing the schools their children will attend, but nearly two-thirds of persons identifying themselves as his supporters want the present system kept intact.
Mr. Roh wants to keep the existing system but expand special-purpose and independent high schools. It appears that he would not face intimidating opposition to his plan should he win the election.
Fifty-seven percent of those who said they supported his presidential bid agreed with his position on the issue, as did the majority of the sample of voters represented in the recent poll.
By Lee Ha-kyung
by Kim Nam-joong