Schools deserve better

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Schools deserve better

Kong Jung-tack, the former superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, was arrested over the weekend on charges of pocketing payoffs worth 59 million won ($52,000) from senior education bureaucrats and commissioners in return for promotions. Prosecutors have finally pinpointed the source of a foul stream of bribery that has roiled the education community for a year.

Kong was stripped of his duties in October, after the Supreme Court confirmed a 1.5 million won penalty against him for violating campaign fund regulations during the 2008 election. But Kong embodied corruption from the day of his appointment until he was forced out. It is lamentable that such a person was elected to shape education in the capital. We don’t want to imagine how students feel about the current situation.

Kong’s capabilities and qualifications were suspect from the beginning. He held hundreds of millions of won in accounts under other people’s names. He claimed that 700 million won came from loans from study institutes, school principals and school foundations, but in fact the money had been extracted from various sources to run his campaign.

Kong had to have known there is no free ride. Instead of steering education reform to reinforce public education and weaken reliance on private tutoring, he squandered his power on paybacks and racketeering just to keep up his status quo. His profligacy finally cost him his wealth, reputation and freedom.

But the fault here does not lie solely with the individual. We need to examine the overall system by which education superintendents are elected. In Seoul, that post carries with it the responsibility for managing an annual budget of 6 trillion won, and the power to appoint school principals, commissioners and other heads of public education offices. In short, the post comes with immense authority over education.

It is the nature of elections to be heated, and winning can take a king’s ransom. Campaign funds are capped at 3 billion won per candidate, but most are suspected of spending twice that amount. And expensive campaigns naturally lead to corruption.

Electing an education superintendent is a vote on the future, not the present. A person with a solid philosophy and foresight must be chosen. Yet political parties run the election as a political platform.

We must seriously deliberate ways to improve the electoral system. But for now, with the next vote just two months away, each ballot must be cast with a view to the children’s welfare and the future of the country. We must show that we have learned a lesson from Kong.
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