[Overseas view]Our duty to vote

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[Overseas view]Our duty to vote

“He’s here. He’s here!”

Students and teachers held their breath. The school principal and vice principal rushed out to the school gate and bowed 90 degrees to welcome him. I thought the man, who wore fashionable sunglasses, was the next highest official to the president.

The children all became model students that day. They did not run around screaming, or roll around fighting. They trimmed their nails and tried not to have runny noses. The teachers acted even more strangely. They addressed students with honorifics and stopped using sticks. There was a strange day like this at least once or twice a year when I was attending elementary school. It was the day the school commissioner visited my school.

I had similar experiences during my middle and high school days. We had to clean our classrooms and playground until they gleamed like new. It was torturous to prepare for the visit when my class was picked for a demonstration. We had to practice making presentations, asking questions and giving answers according to a script for over two weeks. The teacher told us he was sorry. He apologized, saying, “We have to give a good impression to the commissioner.” These are the memories I have of school commissioners.

To elementary, middle and high schools, the commissioners were all-powerful. Some even said that if a school got on the commissioner’s bad side, it received fewer brooms or footballs and teachers were even transferred to other schools.

School commissioners work at the district education office. They are selected from among teachers with 14 or more years of experience through a selection process evaluating their work ratings, a written test and an interview. They are the same level as school vice principals. Compared to administrative civil servants, they are equivalent to a grade 5 office worker or a grade 6 junior official. When a school commissioner is promoted, he or she becomes a principal-level senior supervisor. This is somewhere between grades 3 and 5, according to the position.

The heads of district education offices are above school commissioners and senior supervisors. There are 11 district education offices in Seoul. Seoul’s 25 districts are paired by 2 or 3 to make 11 district education offices. I once visited the head of a district education office and could not keep my mouth shut. The district head’s room was as large as a cabinet minister’s office and luxurious, too. The official who appoints district heads is the superintendent of education. This is definitely a very high public post.

The superintendent holds authority over the school commissioners, senior supervisors and the heads of district education offices. He is also responsible for personnel management of elementary, middle and high school teachers and a budget of six trillion won ($5.9 billion), in the case of the Seoul Metropolitan Education Office.

The first direct election for Seoul’s superintendent of education will be held on Wednesday. On that day the person who will be responsible for the education of 1.486 million elementary, middle and high school students in Seoul will be elected. The election will cost more than 32 billion won. It is our tax money. It is enough money to build three or four schools or provide 30,000 school children with 3,000-won lunches for free for a year. Six candidates have stepped forward for the election.

There is a candidate who says he will improve the egalitarian education system by introducing a system that allows students the right to select their choice of school and provides education according to the level of students, and by raising the quality of teachers with a teacher evaluation system. Then, there is a candidate who opposes this because it would hinder equalization of education and bring negative side effects to education.

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions support the former, and the Korean Teachers and Educational Worker’s Union and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions support the latter. Even some politicians are intervening in the elections, talking of the “MB evaluation theory.” It shows how important the upcoming election is.

Voters are hesitating. I can understand them. They are wondering whether the vote they cast can make any change.

The superintendent of education in Washington DC, Michelle Lee, 38, who is an American of Korean descent, is spearheading an education revolution in the United States. She shows us an example why a superintendent of education is important. Since her appointment in June last year, she closed 23 schools with bad academic performance. She gave warnings to 38 principals, 23 vice principals and 750 teachers and substitute teachers. Meanwhile, she gave big annual salary raises to teachers who improved the school records of their students. She put all her efforts into reviving public education. Even though the teachers’ union criticizes her, calling her a “public enemy,” she boldly promoted her policy. Of course, the parents of students welcomed it with open arms.

The number of qualified voters for the election of Seoul’s education superintendent is 8,084,574. If only 20 percent of the voters vote, just like the turnout for the election of North Jeolla’s education superintendent held a few days ago, the new superintendent will only have the support of around 800,000 people if he receives 50 percent of the votes. This would not be representative of the capital, Seoul, and that would be a pity.

Seoul residents give up half of their salary to pay for their children’s education; mothers don’t mind working as maids to make money for their children’s education; and parents take on the pain of living as a divided family ? with the father working overseas to pay for their children’s education or working in Korea to pay for education overseas.

We must vote and we must vote for the right person.

We must not let 32 billion won go to waste; This is a matter on which the education of our children, our grandchildren, and nieces and nephews depends.

*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Young-yu
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