Private high schools could get axed

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Private high schools could get axed

Several prestigious high schools with a reputation for high university entrance rates might be in danger of being shut down, depending on the local election results in education superintendent races across the country.

Thirteen of Korea’s progressive superintendent candidates jointly stated their intention on May 19 at a briefing at the Seoul Press Center, in central Seoul, to abolish all private autonomous high schools pending victories in next month’s polls.

Those plans, they stated, would be part of an overall attempt to standardize schools and education nationwide.

“If we are elected, there will be no single autonomous private high school in Seoul at the end of the term,” said Lee Sang-su, a spokesman for candidate Jo Hui-yeon, who is running in Seoul’s superintendent race against three other contenders.

“Detailed measures will be prepared after collecting opinions through a public hearing,” he added.

They specified that the abolition policy on autonomous private high schools would have the greatest impact in the Seoul capital area, which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi province - where half of the nation’s voters reside and whose superintendents wield the most power.

“Private autonomous high schools must be changed to operate like normal high schools,” said Lee Gwang-hui, a policy director for candidate Lee Jae-jeong, who is running in Gyeonggi’s race against six others. “On a bigger scale, the abolition is definitely needed.”

Conservative candidates were quick to condemn the pledges by their liberal counterparts, saying that the initiative disregarded the rights of students and their parents to choose which institutions to attend.

“It’s so selfish of them to close down a school without first considering the school faculty,” said Jo Jeon-hyeok, one of the conservative candidates for Gyeonggi. “Closing or not closing a school cannot be decided so simply like this.”

“Autonomous private high schools were established under the government’s educational policy, and it is nonsense for the education superintendent to decide whether to abolish them or not,” added Mun Yong-rin, one of Seoul’s conservative contenders.

Autonomous private schools, which were a key component of former President Lee Myung-bak’s educational policy, are given more freedom to design and organize their own curriculums.

However, they are notorious for admitting only the brightest students in the top half of their class and typically charge tuition rates more than twice those of ordinary high schools.

Their establishment was intended to grant high schools more autonomy and increase diversity, though they have come under controversy in recent years for their expensive tuition rates as well as their role in disadvantaging ordinary high schools.

Still, 49 private autonomous high schools in Korea, including 25 in Seoul, have had above-average success rates in the number of graduates they have sent to prestigious universities.

For that reason, it is likely that the parents and students who have benefited from such institutions will largely oppose the progressives’ abolition plans.

Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies and Hana Academy, which have been held up in recent years as two of the finest high schools in Korea, are also in danger of being shut down.

Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies was established as a foreign language high school in 2005, but was converted to a private autonomous high school in 2011.

This year, 96 of its students went on to attend Seoul National University (SNU) - the same number as from Daewon Foreign Language High School - tying them for first place, according to figures from SNU.

Hana Academy Seoul, built by Hana Financial Group in 2010, produced its second round of graduates this year, ranking sixth in the number of students it sent to SNU, with 66, and solidifying its standing as one of Korea’s most prestigious institutions.

“It is not reasonable for the education superintendent to shutter a school and ignore the school’s efforts to protect its traditions until now,” said a source from one of the autonomous high schools in Seoul who opted to remain anonymous.

In the meantime, nearly a dozen conservative candidates unveiled a set of their own potential plans at a separate briefing last Tuesday at the same venue, stating that they would turn the country’s innovative schools into ordinary high schools pending their victories.

State-run innovative schools were previously touted by former education superintendents as a way of increasing teachers’ autonomy, though critics argued that their establishment only served to disadvantage regular high schools, particularly because of the additional 100 million won ($97,500) they received in financial support from the government.

Autonomous private institutions and innovative high schools are similar in that they both have more freedom in designing and implementing their curriculums than ordinary high schools. Private autonomous high schools, however, have much more flexibility.

BY YUN SUK-MAN, JO SOO-MIN[enational@joongang.co.kr]

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