[Letters] The wrong hot potato

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[Letters] The wrong hot potato

Expansion of the free school meal program is the hot potato in Seoul and other municipalities around the country. City governments and the board of education each provide 30 percent of the budget for free school lunches, and the local autonomous government authority matches 40 percent. Cities, counties and districts that are financially independent or have fewer eligible students may be able to fund the program, but some regional governments may feel burdened.

The free school meal program has been a controversy since last year’s local election. Now, free medical service and free childcare are discussed. Critics say that it is political populism while supporters claim that elementary and middle school education is compulsory education, and the government has to provide complete educational programs including free school meals.

However, there is a loophole in the expansion of the free lunch program. Firstly, financing for the program is a challenge. Secondly, over 7 million children are getting free school meals, and the rest of the students get school meals at a cost. Therefore, it would not be necessary to expand free school lunches to all students. The per-capita national income of the United States is twice that of Korea, but they do not provide free school lunches for all students. Thirdly, there are more urgent jobs that require investment than the free lunch program.

Fifty years ago, when the per-capita GDP was about 80 dollars, students from poor families distributed corn bread at school and porridge at home. They did not feel shameful or embarrassed to skip a meal or get a ration, thanks to the guidance of teachers. And it became the foundation for the knowledge-based society of today.

During those challenging times, many Koreans were hungry, but they had enough food for thought. It is certainly better to be full than hungry, but we had the confidence and value that having a full mind is better than having a full stomach.

Last year, Michelle Rhee, then the Chancellor of Education in Washington D.C., advocated her belief that public school reform depends on training qualified teachers. Today, public education in Korea is in the midst of a crisis. Students and parents have lost trust with teachers, and public education is considered to be inferior to private after-school programs. Also, students are failing to meet the standards required by society.

In order for Korea to continue to grow and become a developed nation, we have to provide proper education for the youth. The most urgent challenge in public education is not free lunches but quality education.

Excellent education can only be provided by qualified and devoted teachers, and the foremost task is to improve the level of Korea’s 410,000 teachers. Now, we need to take a step back and look beyond the material expansion of free meals. It is about time we pay attention to the educational system that invests in quality education in order to provide food for thought.

Choi Soon-ja, president of the Korea Foundation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations.
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