Free meals are too costly
In the 2010 local elections, the idea was borrowed by conservatives as well as liberals. The platform became popular even among gubernatorial, mayoral and district council office candidates. Suddenly, free school meals dominated campaign agendas. Its proponents argued the benefits of a fair and universal program while critics - mostly from the conservative camp - questioned the affordability and need, proposing selective programs for poorer families instead.
The appeal of the idea began to generate campaign pledges of free medical services, and child care and university tuition subsidies. In the 2012 presidential election, these were some of the top platforms. Heated competition also meant compulsory free high school education, and after-school care services for elementary-age pupils were added to agendas.
The free school meal program has been administered for four years in most cities and districts, and has gone on for seven years in some areas. The program has been tested long enough to assess its efficacy.
Free school lunches have helped expand the scope of compulsory education, prevented less-well-off children from the humiliation of publicly being given meals for free and saved parents money.
But critics oppose the universal program because of concerns about it encroaching on other spending in education, and the fear of lowering the quality of school meals.
The free meals campaign has set off a universal welfare competition and restricted school lunches from improving. And the biggest setback is its toll on the education budget, although the largest burden on the overall education budget is the subsidizing of day-care programs for all toddlers under 2 and day-care services for children under 5.
It is not easy to simply weigh the advantages and disadvantages of free school meals. But what is certain is that benefits won’t grow, but problems will. The all-encompassing free school meal program has triggered the expansion of education welfare, increasing administrative work at schools. This has ended up squeezing administration budgets. The turnover for the education welfare budget has increased, but the trickle-down effect benefiting students is lessening. In fact, students who really need welfare care are now receiving less attention.
When excluding fixed expenditures such as labor costs, funding for free school lunches and other education benefits come at the expense of improving education environments. The fallout from reduced spending in upgrades on school facilities does not show for some years. But the losses will mount, making it too costly to make amends.
Education and welfare are not neutral values. The more education and welfare you get, the better. The problem is finding the right balance with limited funding. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education says budgetary appropriation to improve schools are now at one-fourth of adequate levels because spending has mostly gone to subsidizing free school meal and day-care programs. In a few years, we may find many school grounds too unsafe for our children to use.
If funding for school meals falls short, we could ask families to share the burden. But there is no way we can expect parents to provide money to rebuild or renovate outdated school buildings and facilities. If taxes are raised to finance the upgrades, the burden would primarily hurt the low-income class. Instead of insisting on free school meals, we should revise the education welfare system in a broader context to rationalize spending on better-quality education and environment.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 21, Page 26
*The author is an education professor at Sookmyung Women’s University.
By Song Ki-chang