[Viewpoint]The right to choose

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[Viewpoint]The right to choose

There was an election in Seoul to select the superintendent of the school system last week. The contest was fierce among candidates armed with dueling educational philosophies of competition and equality. A candidate who promoted educational self-regulation and competition won in the end.

The election brought to the fore the two clear trends in educational demands. One group believes that elite education based on self-regulation and competition is necessary to sharpen the country’s educational edge. The other argues that the system needs to level off the gaps between students in order to cure the damaged public education environment.

Both groups promote the normalization of the nation’s education system, but there is a big difference in how they think we should achieve that goal.

The country’s education system has long sought to level off students’ capabilities. Some argue for major reform, but it is unrealistic to completely change what has already been established. However, it is also doubtful that the ideal of equality is enough for the nation to survive in the rough seas of global competition. In the end, our educational policies actually drag down talented students in the quest to equalize the student population.

The idea, therefore, emerged that the regulations under the current system should be eased so more diverse kinds of schools can open up to accommodate the wide-ranging demands of education. The thought was that competition needs to be encouraged among education providers by reinforcing the students’ and parents’ right to choose.

In the outcome of the recent election, this school of thought has won a major endorsement.

The opinion, of course, does not run contrary to those of people who believe in the importance of public education and its general improvement. But it is important that individual students are able to study where they wish, and that their unique educational demands are met. These things cannot be ignored in the name of educational equality.

A similar argument is possible for medical insurance reform, which has also been hotly debated of late. The current state-run health insurance program has been praised in comparison to similar programs around the world.

There are, however, many problems with medical service fees, insurance premiums and the scope of insurance coverage.

Some argue that the government must spend more money to provide a wider range of services, while others claim individuals should pay more to improve the program because of the limits of state finances.

The government is reportedly giving up the initial privatization plan and is reviewing a set of reforms that will provide additional medical insurance programs for those who wish to pay higher premiums and receive more benefits.

Those opposing the plan say such reforms will eventually polarize the nation’s medical system. But the government cannot meet the demand for high-quality medical services at their own expense, as there are insufficient funds under the current insurance program.

Whether it is a plan to introduce additional public insurance or allow partial privatization, it is undeniable that there is a demand for improvement to the medical insurance service system.

The fundamental logic of opposing changes to the system - whether it be education or medical insurance - is based on the worry that the change will further widen the gap in society. The argument stems from the assumption that the existing system will be abandoned when a new program is introduced. However, that is only a presumption.

When buying a house or a car, we believe that additional options will fulfill the extra desires while the basic needs will be covered by the base models. So, wouldn’t it be logical to believe that more choices when it comes to education and medical insurance will increase the consumer’s right to choose?

What we need is an assurance that the introduction of the new system will not reduce the benefits that we had under the existing system. It is foolish to oppose the introduction of a new system under an uncertain presumption.

I think the ideological purity of equality is noble, whether it regards education or medical service. However, the issue is whether it can guarantee our competitiveness in the future and whether it is able to reflect the diversified and legitimate demands of the consumers.

Making a choice can be a bothersome and difficult thing. Whether a consumer actually makes a choice or not and whether a consumer has the opportunity to do so in the first place are two completely separate issues. It is wrong to deprive the people of the opportunity to choose.

*The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Tae-wook

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