[PRO] Schools reinforce class inequality*Should we scrap the special purpose high school system?
This election season, special purpose high schools have emerged as a topic of debate. Moon Jae-in, presidential candidate of the Democratic United party, promises to gradually turn international schools and those specializing in gifted students into regular schools, but retain science high schools. Independent Ahn Cheol-soo says he would preserve the schools, but scrap selective admissions. Moon Yong-rin, a conservative candidate for Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education superintendent, says scrapping the schools would undermine people’s desire for diversified education.
Education pledges presented by the three major presidential candidates shared many common themes.
One of them is the pledge to provide free public education through high school. It shows that all candidates believe a high school education should be universal, a benefit to which every Korean is entitled.
After President Lee Myung-bak took office, about 50 autonomous private high schools opened up around the country. In addition to 51 existing special purpose schools, there are more than 100 special schools. Moreover, global schools and foreign school overseas campuses are opening up one after another, and the situation is evidence of the hierarchy and inequality in education.
Tuition at these can be triple that of regular public high schools. They have their own admission systems, and their students come from drastically different socioeconomic backgrounds than students at public schools.
They have created a system to benefit children from upper-middle-class families.
Educational opportunity should be universal and fair, but special high schools pose problems. Amid our society’s widening wealth gap, these schools reinforce social inequality.
Those supporting the special schools say students should have the right to choose the kind of education they want and special schools would reduce the need for private tutoring. They also contend that the system encourages schools to specialize in certain fields and guarantees the independence of private schools.
But the operation of the special schools proves such arguments are nothing but empty words. Students’ right to choose schools led to the discrimination in education based on the social and economic backgrounds of their parents.
Private tutoring was actually encouraged and even elementary school kids are competing to enter special schools. Furthermore, most students are studying materials beyond the required curriculum to join special purpose schools, and middle schools are focusing their classes only for admissions to those schools.
It is, therefore, impossible to diversify education through special purpose schools. It is important to guarantee the independence of private schools, but there is no measure to ensure transparent management. The government also admitted that the policy of autonomous private schools was a failed policy when they failed to recruit enough students to fill admission quotas.
The time has come to conduct a thorough evaluation of those schools and transform the poorly managed institutions into regular schools. Otherwise, they will create more serious social problems. Furthermore, foreign language high schools must be transformed into regular high schools. Society already has reached a consensus about their problems and ill effects as they often operate outside mandated curriculums.
We have respected the principle that beneficiaries must pay the cost of education. But there are growing demands to reduce the financial burden of educational opportunities. The demand for lower college tuitions is one example.
The time has come when high school education should be free. The contents should be universal, and opportunities should be available to everyone equally.
To this end, schools that are destroying the education ecosystem must be transformed into regular schools as soon as possible.
Improving the education quality should be done through internal programs at school. Instead of creating special purpose schools, education programs at all schools need to be improved.
*The author is a professor of education at Catholic University.
By Sung Ki-sun