[Viewpoint]Reining in private education

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[Viewpoint]Reining in private education

It was past midnight, and I was taking a taxi through an area of Gangnam that is full of educational institutes. Streets that should have been empty at that time of day were blocked up, and I thought there had been an accident.

“Around this time of the day, the traffic here is always like this. It’s because of parents driving to pick up their children,” the taxi driver said, in a tone that implied it was common knowledge.

The Lee Myung-bak administration boastfully proclaimed, “We will strengthen public education and reduce the private education burden on parents by half.”

The market, however, is going in the opposite direction. Students are crowding to private educational institutes and parents’ agony is snowballing. Now we’re seeing the establishment of international middle schools and 100 private high schools, the addition of integral calculus to the mathematics portion of the college scholastic ability test for students who will major in humanities, the substitution of the CSAT English test for national English exams, and many other moves. The private education market shakes whenever the government changes the system. Even though people are spending less because the economy isn’t faring well, parents are always willing to pay for their children’s education. They rely on private educational institutes because they don’t have enough information and feel uneasy about the future of their children.

This is the reality. According to the Bank of Korea, Koreans spent a total of 15.34 trillion won ($12.5 billion) on both private and public education in the first half of this year, a 9.1 percent increase over the same period last year. The problem is that education expenditures have increased to 6.2 percent of the total family spending of 243.99 trillion won, even though the economy is in the dumps.

What about the number of private educational institutes? At the end of June this year, there were 32,400 hagwon that prep students for the college admission exam and other supplementary education centers around the country, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This is a 95 percent increase from the approximately 16,600 in the end of 2002, right before the President Roh Moo-hyun administration launched. There are around 11,100 elementary, middle and high schools in the country, meaning the number of private education institutes is close to three times higher. Even in the first six months of this year, more than 2,000 more private institutes opened their doors. It’s a wonder that it’s not in the Guinness Book of World Records. Hagwon predict that the market will grow to over 30 trillion won this year, the largest since the establishment of the nation.

I did not actually believe President Lee’s public pledge that he would halve the burden of parents when it comes to private education. No government in Korean history has ever succeeded in doing so, and I do not think it is realistic. The president himself must have spent quite a lot of money on private education for his three daughters and one son. His first two daughters went to music school in the United States, his third daughter studied art at a university in Korea and his son went to college in the United States.

Nevertheless, the president recently spoke about hagwon fees.

“I heard that the fees collected by private education institutes have risen so high that they have become a big burden to ordinary people. Establish a comprehensive plan to cope with this issue,” he ordered.

The Seoul City Education Department responded by announcing a supplementary plan, saying, “We will introduce a system to determine appropriate fees for an educational institute to charge, and take action against those that charge too much.”

The idea of establishing a standard for fees and getting rid of the current bubble is commendable, even though the rent, teacher quality and education programs are different at each hagwon. This is something that they should have been doing already, even without a direct order from the president. However, it is causing a commotion, as if it were a magical prescription that will cure the illness of the private education sector. But the government still doesn’t punish private educational institutes that give late-night classes that break the 10 p.m. rule, or those that operate expensive secret tutoring classes to evade taxes.

It won’t be easy for the government to control the private education market. The demand will not decrease as long as entrance exams for foreign language or art high schools include questions that cannot be solved unless students attended a hagwon or were tutored privately.

The government policy of halving hagwon fees has already half failed. The polarization of private education is also growing more serious. This is because the government only shouted out big slogans, without redirecting the demand for hagwon to schools. It is not reasonable, in terms of market logic, to try to reduce the private education system when public education remains the same.

Moves through which people can quickly feel a change should be executed first, such as strengthening classes for students of similar academic levels, upgrading after-school classes, improving special high school entrance exams, introducing a teacher evaluation system and maintaining consistency in the university entrance exam. Show parents that a minimum of efforts are being made to reduce their burden.

I hope National Assembly members will clearheadedly look at the reality of Korean education during the annual inspection of the administration. I hope they also pay attention to the reason why there are more private educational institutes than schools.

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

by Yang Young-yu
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