Despite vote, funding free meals in question

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Despite vote, funding free meals in question

While Seoul voters may have spoken on the free school lunch program by staying home, the controversial policy is unlikely to be expanded as quickly as the superintendent wants and as passed by the city council in December because the program was not included in this year’s city government budget, which was made before the policy was approved.

Under the program spearheaded by Democratic Superintendant Kwak No-hyun and the Democratic-controlled Seoul Metropolitan Council, left in place by Wednesday’s nullified referendum, all elementary and middle school students are to eventually receive free meals.

Currently, elementary school students in first through fourth grade receive free school lunch, funded by Kwak’s Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, except fourth graders in Seocho, Gangnam, Songpa and Jungnang Districts, whose district heads are Grand Nationals.

Kwak demanded on Wednesday evening after the referendum vote that the Seoul Metropolitan Government provide the funds to cover fifth and sixth graders so all elementary school students receive free meals starting this fall semester.

“Implementing the free school lunch program for all elementary school students starting this fall semester is the way [the Seoul Metropolitan Government] can acknowledge defeat and show acceptance of the result of the referendum,” Kwak said.

But the city government said that fifth and sixth graders are not covered in this year’s budget, delaying free lunches for all elementary school students until next year at the earliest.

Under the education office’s plans, the program is to be extended to first-year middle school students in 2012, second-year middle school students by 2013 and third-year middle school students by 2014. Once the program is expanded to all elementary and middle school students, over 800,000 students will receive free lunch at an annual cost of 400 billion won ($370 million).

To cover all elementary schools starting this fall, the education office said an additional 45.7 billion won is needed immediately from the city government to cover the 109.5 billion won total. Most elementary schools start their fall semester early next week.

Meanwhile, controversy over free school lunches flared up in Daejeon this week. The Daejeon chapter of a national teachers’ union distributed a press release after Seoul’s referendum arguing that the city should also extend free meals to more students.

Daejeon had planned to extend its free lunch program to all elementary school students by 2012 and all middle school students by 2014, but its superintendent and mayor have locked horns over the issue. As a result, the city decided to extend the program to cover all elementary school students by 2014.


By Yim Seung-hye [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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