[VIEWPOINT]Time for direct education elections

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[VIEWPOINT]Time for direct education elections

Though it failed to attract the attention of the public, a very meaningful elections were held yesterday. They were the elections of the members of the local education boards, which are held every four years.
This year, the elections were held in 14 cities and provinces nationwide, everywhere except in Jeju province, which held the election earlier after being upgraded to a special autonomous province, and in Ulsan city, which decided to hold the elections later due to local circumstances.
Depending on its size, each city and province elects seven to 15 members of the board of education. A total of 132 education board members are elected nationwide and more than half of them are filled by people who work in education fields.
The board of education, together with the education superintendent of each city and province, is in charge of primary, middle and high school education in local areas.
Housing prices in Seoul’s Gangnam area, south of the Han River, are expensive because of the higher quality of education available there.
Therefore, the spirit of educational local autonomy lies in collecting and reflecting the opinions of residents about education policy. For all that, the elections of the members of the boards of education didn’t attract much public attention because they were indirect elections.
The voters who elect members of the local education boards and the education superintendents are the members of each school’s operation committee, composed of seven to 15 committee members. The logic is that since the school operation committee is composed of members who represent teachers, parents and local residents, they represent the local constituencies. However, there are many bad side effects.
Because it is an indirect election, the residents do not pay much attention and the election gets overheated because the number of voters is small. As a result, election campaigns are apt to focus on ugly cronyism, according to school or local affiliations, and allegations of ballot buying are rampant.
Starting this year, the members of the board of education, which has been an honorary position without pay, will earn between 24 million won ($25,000) and 54 million won a year, depending on the decision of the local government, so the number of candidates has increased and charges of election corruption have gotten more serious. According to the National Election Commission, 48 cases of illegalities in the elections were uncovered last Wednesday.
The number of formal complaints also increased, from five in 2002 to 15 cases this year. The aftereffects of the election are expected to be felt strongly. In the education community, there are people who say, “How can we entrust education to people like them?”
Unlike the presidential and local elections, however, there is no election watch campaign led by civic groups in the education board election. In the local elections this year, the feasibility of candidates’ election pledges were carefully measured, but in the education board elections, the situation was far different.
The phenomenon in which a certain group of people tries to increase their influence has also become more serious. The Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union has already unified its candidates in each electoral district. As a result, the chances of election for the teachers’ union candidates are very high. This is the main reason why the teachers’ union exercises huge influence in local educations, even though only 20 percent of the teachers are members of the union. Since the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations also plans to use the same tactic in this election, there is criticism that “the election of education board members has become a proxy war between the two teachers’ trade unions.”
New Right Movement organizations, including the Liberty Union, have lodged a formal complaint against the leaders of the Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union, on the grounds that “the union illegally staged an election campaign while it tried to unify its candidates in each electoral district.” And the teachers’ union filed a lawsuit against the leaders of the Liberty Union on libel charges. This is the ugly scene that unfolds in the election of education board members.
Many people, therefore, demand direct election of local education board members and education superintendents, because the same situation is created in the election of education superintendents. In the education community, too, the atmosphere of agreement with the idea is spreading.
Jeju province has already elected members of its education board through a direct vote. At the National Assembly, nine draft laws on local education autonomy are waiting for deliberation. Included among them is a revised draft agreed to between the ruling party and the government. The main point is the direct election of education board members and education superintendents. If the law had been revised by April of this year, the direct election system would have applied to this election, but due to differences of opinion among National Assemblymen, the revision failed to pass the Assembly.
A direct election system should be adopted. But worries have been expressed that the draft revision could go up in smoke after this election is over.
The burden on the shoulders of school operation committee members is heavy.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Day-young
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