Seoul’s battle for the classrooms

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Seoul’s battle for the classrooms

In the coming battle over education policy in Seoul, it’s Mayor Oh Se-hoon in one corner and newly elected Seoul Education chief Kwak No-hyun in the other.

One of Kwak’s main policy goals, which helped him get elected in June, is to provide free school lunches to elementary, middle and high school students in Seoul.

Kwak said in his inauguration speech on July 1 that he will “provide free school lunches to all elementary schools starting next year and expand the program to middle and high schools gradually in the future.”

To provide school lunches for 600,000 elementary school students in Seoul, the city government estimates it needs at least 230 billion won ($190 million) per year. To expand the lunch scheme to middle and high schools, it will need over 520 billion won per year.

The mayor’s position is that a free school meal program is too expensive and idealistic and he wants to offer free lunches only to students from low-income families. (Kwak says that will be a source of stigmatization for the students.) Oh says the Seoul education chief should focus more on achieving the so-called three nos: no violence in schools, no private tutoring and no big school supplies costs, with a specific budget of 265 billion won over the next four years.

Oh’s policy is focused on easing the financial burden for parents paying for private tutoring classes by providing additional classes in after-school programs tailored to different academic levels.

But Oh, who belongs to the ruling Grand National Party, faces a dilemma. To make the three nos happen, he needs assistance from the Seoul Education Office, which manages teachers, now controlled by the opposition.

He also needs approval from the Seoul Metropolitan Council to obtain his projected 265 billion won budget, but the opposition Democratic Party now controls 79 of the city council’s 106 seats.

DP city councilors intend to cut the budgets for Oh’s signature initiatives, such as the Han River Renaissance and Design Seoul projects, and use the money for the free school lunches.

“[The council] plans to create an ordinance to prevent the free lunch program from being instituted as a one-time event and keep it going,” said Park Rae-hak, DP city councilor representing the Gwangjin area. “The DP is the majority in the council and I believe that’s plausible.”

Even with his political support, Kwak’s budget will be tight. Experts say that the education budget of 6.31 trillion won (including 2.5 billion won in assistance from Seoul’s city government) will give him 1.3 trillion won to play with after teacher salaries and regular projects are paid.

But if Kwak tries to use some of the 1.3 trillion won for free meals, money to improve education and subsidies for low-income students will be eaten into.

“The education office will negotiate with the Seoul city government and district offices to cover 50 percent of the money used for free lunches for elementary schools,” said an aide for Kwak.

The DP secured 21 out of 25 district office head positions and they campaigned on supporting the free lunch program.

This year, district offices were allotted an average of 6.68 billion won for education expenses, and if they want to provide free meals, they’ll need to use half of the 6.68 billion won, experts said.

The offices may end up slashing budgets used to hire Korean teachers who assist native English-speaking teachers in English classes.

“A district office doesn’t really have enough money to support the free lunch program,” said a district office head who asked for anonymity.

Kim Hyeon-kuk, an aide to Kwak, said his boss will continue pushing for the project.

“Seoul residents voted in support of free lunch program and the education office and city government need to negotiate this matter,” Kim said.

Meanwhile, some education experts suggested a compromise. “Providing free lunches to all schools is a topic worth discussing,” said Cho Sang-sik, education professor at Dongguk University. “But [the education office] should consider expanding the program gradually by region.”


By Han Eun-hwa, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]
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