[Viewpoint] Local accountability for educationKim Sang-kon was elected the education superintendent of Gyeonggi Province in a vote held on April 8. Voters’ indifference resulted in the lowest election turnout in the history of direct election of regional superintendents.
Kim received 41 percent of the vote, which constituted a mere 5 percent of the eligible voters.
Some people question if a candidate who received support from only 5 percent of eligible voters can properly represent the intentions of the public, and if direct election is indeed an appropriate system for picking superintendents.
More discussion on the superintendent election system is expected to follow, but I personally feel that we need to take this opportunity to overhaul the autonomy of regional education in general, not just to fix the way we elect superintendents.
We need to consider integrating regional educational systems with other governmental bodies.
Under the current system, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security distributes central government grants to local autonomous governments.
However, the administration of elementary and secondary education is under the authority of the local office of education and the superintendent.
While local governments can provide financial assistance, they do not share accountability or authority. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology allocates separate local educational financial grants to municipal and provincial offices of education.
Therefore, when a certain region fails to provide satisfactory school facilities or educational environment, local residents direct their complaints to the Ministry of Education or the education superintendent, not to the head of the local government.
All of us believe that the future of Korea depends on education, and most families are struggling to pay for private educational costs. Therefore, the education issue cannot be solved only with the grants from the central government.
Moreover, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology already takes up the largest portion of the national budget - 20 percent.
Because of this, additional expansion of the education budget is constrained since creation of jobs and extension of the social security net both compete for greater financial resources. As a result, improving education requires further help from local governments.
However, most local autonomous governmental bodies provide less than 5 percent of the budgets of elementary and secondary schools.
Educational autonomy and regional autonomy have been separated fundamentally, so local governments do not consider assistance to education a part of their job description. If a local government head feels accountable for education, the assistance would grow dramatically. Today, municipal and provincial governments lack structures to directly aid education.
Simply put, when there is no office or agency in place to advocate for more educational investment, there will be no increase in educational investment.
In the past, educational autonomy and regional autonomy have been separated in order to prevent the local government head from diverting resources for education to other purposes. Moreover, there were concerns that a general administrator might impede the purity of education. For these reasons, many educators still oppose integration.
However, the political environment has changed. When citizens are more interested in education than ever, no governor, mayor or county head would treat education lightly.
If one city enhances assistance to schools and that results in a higher university admission rate and lower private education costs, nearby cities would be sure to demand that their governments do the same. Cities and counties would compete to improve the educational environment, and education spending would steadily grow.
In the United States, the heads of local governments in most cities are responsible for education. Strong assistance from the local government made comprehensive educational reforms possible in New York City and Washington, D.C. Former President George W. Bush strongly promoted education reform when he was the governor of Texas.
Education insiders are concerned about possible intervention by local governments in educational administration if and when the two autonomous systems are integrated.
To address this, the superintendent could be guaranteed absolute authority over personnel management and curriculum.
It is about time we seriously consider integrating local governments and their educational systems in order to make local governments accountable for education.
*The writer is an economic policy adviser and former minister of construction and transportation. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Jong-chan
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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