Free lunches at hefty priceThe move to offer free school lunches will likely gobble up money that should be used for other educational needs. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s budget outline for next year, spending to subsidize free lunches for 260,000 students in the first, second and third grades at elementary schools across the capital will cost 116.2 billion won ($104.7 million) next year, up sharply from 13.2 billion won for the limited free lunches offered this year.
Seoul’s new education chief, Kwak No-hyun, has pledged to expand the free lunch program to all students in elementary school in the capital. This, however, will sap money that could be used for more important projects. The proposed budget to build schools, increase and renovate classrooms and upgrade other facilities has been slashed significantly. In exchange for a free meal, school children will have to settle for aging, outdated facilities.
Spending on renovation and the construction of new facilities is mostly funneled to poorer neighborhoods. Providing free lunches for children in wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods deprives students from these low-income households of a better educational environment. Many observers warned of the fallout of this move when liberal candidates campaigned for free school lunches during the June local elections.
Seoul has a separate education budget to upgrade classrooms and school facilities, provide new books and desks and set up after-school classrooms.
If the city begins to use some of the money in that budget to fund increased spending on school meals, the public education environment is bound to get worse. We have to ask if this is truly the type of social justice that liberals want.
Education officials and local governments cannot afford to squander money in these times on non-urgent areas. The best strategy is to initially provide school meals to those who really need them and then expand the program gradually depending on budget considerations.
We agree with Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who has suggested that the city first offer free lunches solely to students in low-income households.
Education superintendents must seriously reconsider whether providing all school children with free lunches is more imperative than fixing old classrooms and facilities and buying necessary school materials. If they really care about our children, they will know the answer.