No free lunch after all

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No free lunch after all

Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo said his administration would end an 86 billion won ($77.2 million) subsidy for free school lunches in next year’s budget. He said, “Free school meals is no longer a problem of good or bad policy. We just cannot afford it anymore.” The money that goes into subsidizing free lunches at schools takes up 12 percent of the free meal budget. The administration no longer can guarantee the nutritious meals given free to 1.37 million kindergarten, elementary and middle school students in the province for the last two years.

The Gyeonggi case underscores the disastrous state of public finances at local governments due to ballooning welfare programs.

Without the money to pay for it, no welfare policy can work regardless of its good intentions. If there are no public funds, none of the welfare programs can be run. Because of the free lunch program, Gyeonggi and Seoul administrations had to put off renovation of old school facilities and spending on school materials. Standards of school meals have also deteriorated. Because of purely political, populist campaign pledges, the public finances of the nation as well as local governments and educational administrations have been wrecked.

The so-called “free-for-all” welfare programs should be totally rethought out of the heat of competitive politics. The presidential office, education ministry and ruling party should re-study their pledge to make high school education free starting with rural areas next year and across the nation from 2017. Even teachers question the plan. According to a survey of 2,260 teachers by the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, 73.9 percent said the plan to make high school education mandatory and free is premature.

The government needs 9.3 trillion won to subsidize high school tuitions by 2017, which would be one fifth of the education welfare programs pledged by President Park Geun-hye and her government. City and provincial education administrations will find themselves in an even tighter condition. Students may have to study in worse conditions because of the overall cost. The government’s job is to set priorities on what policy and programs are most necessary and urgent within the limited financial resources it has. Many companies are sponsoring high school tuitions and scholarships. What is more urgent is upgrading air conditioning and heating in classrooms. Authorities should be focusing on what benefits students most. If they had students’ best interests at heart, they would spend more to improve school conditions.

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