Feasible promises are keyA by-election to fill the vacancy left by former superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Kwak No-hyun, who is behind bars for a bribery conviction, will be held on Dec. 19, the day of the presidential election. Conservative civic groups chose Moon Yong-lin, former education minister, as their candidate earlier this month, and the opposing liberal camp chose Lee Su-ho, former president of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union and former head of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Even though several independent candidates are expected to join the race, the election will basically be an all-out battle between the conservative and progressive forces in our society.
All the candidates, whether they run with the backing of political parties or not, are running in the election to clean up some of the dark corners of our primary and secondary educational systems. It’s hard to deny that all of the problems with our education system are complicated and probably can’t be solved overnight. None of them, including skyrocketing private education costs and regrettable levels of violence in schools, can be addressed or solved by a single group alone.
That’s why a new superintendent must be able to persuade his or her opponents to share some values and, at the same time, unwaveringly resist excessive demands from supporters. If a new superintendent opts for his supporters’ interests alone, it will lead to an aggravation of discord among teachers and also students and their parents, as seen vividly by radical former superintendent Kwak’s lopsided approach to critical issues. The new superintendent should take lessons from Kwak, who frequently annoyed the public by picking fights with the conservative central government.
The new head of Seoul’s schools must confront two undeniable constraints. First, he will serve for only 19 months - the remainder of Kawk’s term - not long enough to put many campaign promises into action. Second, a new superintendent can hardly amend the budget for next year, amounting to over 7 trillion won ($6.45 billion), which is about to pass through the Seoul city council next month.
So a new Seoul education chief must first offer feasible pledges to voters in a clean, practical and policy-centered campaign. Voters, too, have an obligation to weigh the practicality of the pledges. The first step is culling candidates who beg for votes with irresponsible promises that are impossible to keep without the central government’s help.