[Viewpoint]Educational reform in question‘Let’s vote fairly in the Seoul city education superintendent election on July 30,” and “Let’s meet in Gyeongbok Palace on July 30,” are the two mobile phone messages that a few of my friends received on the eve of the election.
The first message urges voters to select Kong Jung-tack as education superintendent because the first two syllables of his name are pronounced the same as “fair” in Korean. The second message urges voters to support Jou Kyong-bok, whose first name is pronounced the same as “Gyeongbok.”
Teachers and education officials, whose interests are at stake in the election of the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, should have remained neutral. But they used such methods to support their candidate.
A friend of mine, who is a member of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, said he sent “Gyeongbok Palace” messages to about 20 of his friends.
After Kong was elected, my friend said, “I feel empty.” A resident of Gangnam District in Seoul, he said he sensed defeat when he went to cast his ballot. “So many mothers came out to vote,” he said.
I do not fully agree with my friend’s argument of opposing Kong for only two reasons: private education and corruption. I believe that students from the families who cannot afford private tutoring will suffer even more from Jou’s plans to scrap evaluation exams, which will make it impossible to assess students’ abilities, and teacher evaluations.
However, I agreed with my friend’s opinion on corruption.
For the last three consecutive years until last year, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education was ranked at the bottom in an evaluation by the Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption. Kong was the superintendent of that office.
After his latest victory, Kong said in media interviews that he will improve the transparency of his office, but I doubt it. Will he be able to pull off the miracle of transforming what had been labeled as “a dog’s tail” into “the hair from a weasel’s tail” only after one year and 10 months?
That is why Kong’s victory is an uncomfortable relief for me. Somewhere in the corner of my heart, I feel sorry that Jou lost.
As the election approached, Jou gained more and more support, and I felt anticipation, which was more than enough to make me forget his promises that fall in line with the policies of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union. The anticipation was that it would be possible to completely reform the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
I thought it would be possible to end the office’s deeply rooted practice of linking personnel affairs with private ties and employees’ attempts to please supervisors whenever a personal appointment is made. The subsequent corruption and abuse of power could also be rooted out, I thought. I believed a new, fresh wind could be introduced to the office.
It is true that the length of the term as new superintendent would be too short for Jou to make substantial changes at the office even if he had won. Although he was supported by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, many inside the union questioned his ability to represent the union.
However, Kong’s policies were supported by many teachers.
“If Kong wins, teachers will be comfortable and schools will be operated calmly,” a senior teacher said. He said students will be encouraged to study hard, while teachers will not be forced into a competition.
“But in a quiet school with no competition among students and teachers, only the children from wealthy families will receive private tutoring and move forward to prestigious universities,” he said.
He concluded that Kong had contributed greatly to making teachers think their profession is a “service industry” and to put efforts to avoid falling behind at schools.
Nothing will be changed, no matter how sincerely we try to comfort Jou. So, all we can do right now is hope that Kong can achieve what we had expected from Jou.
The new superintendent must fully implement what he promised. He must spend the office’s budget to support talented students from low-income families.
And Kong must reform the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education completely by joining hands with those who supported Jou. It is time to end the repeated failures of the office for the past decades.
At the age of 74, Kong should have nothing to fear.
*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun