School safety funds must come firstSeoul’s conservative education chief Moon Yong-lin, who is running for re-election in the June local elections, said the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education could revise the free school meal policy.
“We would have to re-examine the universal welfare benefits - the free-for-all day care and school meal,” he said in a press conference.
He previously said the universal welfare policy should be changed if it comes at the expense of public safety. He indicated that school meals could be charged to children of families who could afford 100,000 won ($97) per month.
Free school meals have been sucking up the education budget since the policy was enforced from 2011. The cost nationwide shot up to 2.62 trillion won this year from 2.46 trillion won last year. In Seoul, the program cost more than doubled to 263 billion won this year from 122 billion won in 2011. The finance of the increasing cost came at the expense of other education spending. Safety hazards increased because school renovations and reconstruction were delayed. The budget for environmental improvement at schools was 80.1 billion won this year, compared to 460 billion won in 2010. Its share of the education budget plunged to 1.1 percent this year from the previous 10 percent.
Children are forced to study in a dangerous atmosphere. An auxiliary building in Eunpyeong District in Seoul that was built in 1967 has been falling apart recently. And a 60-year-old gym in a girls’ high school in Seoul is still in use despite safety warnings. According to the Ministry of Education, 123 school buildings around the country have been deemed unsafe, with two requiring immediate shutdown and 121 requiring urgent repairs. If left unattended, children’s lives could be at risk.
Since the Sewol ferry disaster, parents are placing the highest priority on their’s children’s safety. Voters are disillusioned by the promises of free lunch. Kim Sang-gon, who stepped down as superintendent of the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education to run in the provincial gubernatorial race in the same region, lost the primary to the New Politics Alliance for Democracy. He had promised to run free public buses in Gyeonggi Province.
Free school meals have been on trial for three years. The time has come to re-examine the policy’s effect. Safety should come first. Monetary priorities should also be appropriated accordingly.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 15, Page 32