Liberals take top education seats

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Liberals take top education seats

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A liberal’s unexpected win of the top educator’s spot in the Seoul metropolitan area is expected to change the dynamic of the education sector for the next four years.

And experts are already expressing concern about a foreseeable divide between the conservative government and the newly elected liberal-leaning education superintendents.

“If these liberal education superintendents aggressively oppose all the Education Ministry’s decisions, there is a possibility that education will become political, in which the aftereffects will be felt directly by the students,” said Song Gi-chang, an education professor at Sookmyung Women’s University.

Out of 16 education superintendent posts up for grabs in Wednesday’s election, six liberal candidates won over voters in areas including Seoul and Gyeonggi, while conservatives took 10 other spots, including in Busan, Daegu and Incheon.

In Seoul, liberal Kwak No-hyun won 34.34 percent of the votes, defeating conservative Lee Won-hee by only 1.12 percent. Kwak will govern more than 65,000 teachers and education officials in 2,170 elementary, middle and high schools in the capital.

The incumbent education superintendent of Gyeonggi, liberal Kim Sang-kon, was re-elected with a big lead over conservative rival Cheong Jean-gon. Kim had 42.34 percent of the votes yesterday compared to Cheong’s 27.16 percent.

The Gyeonggi educational administration unit is Korea’s largest regional education office, with around 1.86 million students in 2,060 schools.

Throughout their campaigns, the liberal candidates emphasized their opposition to education policies promulgated by President Lee Myung-bak’s administration. They argued that the current policies are too “competition-oriented,” and stressed the need for education that builds students’ character and creativity.

One divisive issue was the formation of more special-purpose schools, including self-governing private high schools and foreign language schools.

Unlike his conservative rival, Kwak opposes opening more special-purpose schools. He vowed to reduce their number in Seoul, saying they fuel dependence on private education and create a bigger gap between students from different income brackets.

Also, unlike the conservatives, the liberals oppose the Education Ministry’s dismissal of teachers in the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union who allegedly participated in political activities. Gyeonggi’s Kim, for example, defied the education ministry’s order to discipline the teachers.

Late last month, the Education Ministry announced that it would dismiss 134 public school teachers who belong to the teachers’ union, for paying membership fees to the Democratic Labor Party and engaging in political activities. The teachers were indicted for flouting the Korean law that bars teachers and public officials from collective political activity.

“Friction between a liberal education superintendent and the government looks inevitable, as conflict between the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union and the Education Ministry is worsening,” said Cho Sang-sik, an education professor at Dongguk University.

Another question bound to create controversy is the free school lunch policy. Liberal candidates pledged to offer free meals to all elementary and middle-school students nationwide while conservatives brushed off the proposal, saying it would cost too much and that feeding children from high-income brackets is unnecessary.

Seoul’s Kwak, a presidential advisor under the late President Roh Moo-hyun and a professor at Korea National Open University, was one of the candidates who vowed to provide free school meals. He also promised to reduce the student-teacher ratio per classroom to 25-1 while making the evaluation system for teachers more transparent.

Kwak and the other top-ranking education officials will exert a massive influence over education policies for the next four years, beginning on July 1. The superintendents, the top educators for regional areas, are often called “little education presidents” due to their influence over policies including school curricula, establishing new schools, setting standards for teachers’ recruitment and evaluation and changing admissions systems.

This year, the Seoul superintendent of education is expected to manage a budget of more than 7 trillion won ($5.8 billion) while the Gyeonggi superintendent handles a budget of around 9 trillion won - more than the city of Busan’s entire budget.

Meanwhile, this will be the last year for the public to vote on education superintendents and board members in the regional elections. Beginning in 2014, officials in regional legislatures will decide the superintendents by appointment.


By Cho Jae-eun, Kim Sung-tak [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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