[Viewpoint] No such thing as a free school lunch

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[Viewpoint] No such thing as a free school lunch


Students at Seoul Wirye Elementary School learn about the ingredients of a nutritious lunch. By Kim Kyung-bin

A Paris correspondent of a Korean newspaper sent his 6-year-old son to a French kindergarten. Then, the district office sent a letter, asking the parent to join a discussion to decide the spending for the child’s lunches. At the consultation, he was informed that he should submit an income statement and the district office will review it and decide the cost of the child’s lunch program. When the parents are earning high incomes, they have to pay 8 euros (11,000 won, $9.90) for each meal, while the lunch is free for the low-income families, the district office explained.

France, after a long history of Socialist Party governance, is known to have a great welfare system, better than that of Korea. University tuitions are free, but middle- and upper-class families pay for the lunch programs of their children. Not all students have to eat at school cafeterias. Half of the elementary students eat their lunches at home. It’s a controlled lunch program and it is a program for low-income families, not for the rich.

Since last year, free lunch programs at elementary, middle and high schools have stirred an uproar in Gyeonggi, and now it has become a hot issue nationwide for the upcoming local elections. The reason for providing free school lunches to everyone is quite extraordinary. Unless everyone eats free lunches, those receiving meals without payment will feel stigmatized, it is said.

Just like in France, if meals are paid for by local governments or district education offices, there is no reason for a child to suffer emotional distress. Without thinking, politicians increasingly say the government should spend 1.5 trillion won more each year to pay for student lunches.

Some argue that since public education for grade school is mandatory, school lunches should be free. That doesn’t make sense either. The students should be given the freedom to go home and eat their lunch or bring their own lunch boxes.

It’s been only a few years since public education has improved, first by resolving the problem of crowded classes. Still, many schools will not turn on heaters and air conditioners during cold winter and hot summer days because the energy bills are too high.

An elementary school headmaster has submitted a commentary to a newspaper, asking for the money to be spent on education infrastructure, rather than paying for school lunches. He said computers at the school are so outdated that it takes more than 10 minutes for a video file to be downloaded.

It will save the school much money on energy costs if the calculation of the school’s electricity fees are based on industrial standards, he said. Because the government refuses to do this, the school can not afford to use its heaters and air conditioners, he said.

This is the reality at many schools, but do we really have to spend so much money on giving free lunches to the children of rich families?

In our society, we have always solved problems in such ways. We have tried to resolve a problem from the viewpoint of ideology.

When a problem arises, it is normal to study and search for an answer, but we define the ideology first and fly a flag of fundamental principles.

That used to be the practice of the early Communists in China. Hu Shih, a Nationalist, argued with Chen Duxiu, a Communist. “Why do you talk about the wages of rickshaw men to improve the transportation system, rather than studying the automobile? Study more problems and debate less ideology,” Hu said. This became a famous debate between the two Chinese scholars.

Our leftists still have the same problem.

They believe the problem will be resolved when everyone - both rich and poor - eats free lunches. While students’ abilities vary, they want the same education for everyone.

I have recently made an argument that Korea must find a new plan for national prosperity and a strong military for the next hundred years. The only resource that Korea has is its population and strengthening the competitiveness of Koreans through education is the means for our survival.

And yet, our educational reality is deplorable.

Every administration, whether conservative or liberal, declares war against tutoring. Therefore, the authorities decided that parents won’t have to spend money on tutoring if schools become less competitive. Tests became increasingly easy and schools did not try to offer difficult courses. That’s how the standards of Korean education has gone down.

The authorities attempt to shut down foreign language high schools because they are seen as helping support the tutoring market. It’s like the old Korean saying of burning down the house to get rid of the mice.

The argument of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union to provide free school lunches to all students is not leftist or progressive. Just as arguments by some conservatives to give easier tests and shut down foreign language high schools is not rightist or conservative. It is simply nothing more than populism.

When we see that educational competitiveness represents the country’s competitiveness and a way to feed this country for the next 100 years, the solution to our present problems is very clear. The future of our education depends upon the efforts of teachers to heighten the students’ competitiveness. Teachers’ competitiveness is students’ competitiveness.

Do not stir up the schools with a misguided debate about free school lunches. When the teachers do not hide behind the shield of their union and instead work together to improve the competitiveness of students, Korea’s education system will stand tall.

There will be no future as long as teachers debate free school lunches, just like the days that are flying by even though the real spring has not arrived.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the president of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and former president of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kwon Young-bin
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