Trouble ahead on education front

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Trouble ahead on education front

In the aftermath of the landslide victory of 13 liberal superintendents in the June 4 local elections, the new education chiefs are expected to clash with the Ministry of Education of the conservative Park Geun-hye administration over a series of controversial issues.

The first is expected to be the fate of the Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union, the country’s biggest association of liberal teachers.

On June 19, the Seoul Central District Court will rule whether to designate the union as an illegal labor union.

In 2013, the Ministry of Employment and Labor unilaterally notified the union that it had become an illegal group because it accepted a fired teacher as a member.

The union protested the notice and filed a suit demanding the suspension of the implementation of the notice.

If the court rules the union is illegal, the Education Ministry will take measures to actually disband it. It will order education superintendents nationwide to stop negotiations with the union and order the union to vacate its offices nationwide.

However, the 13 new superintendents publicly said in a joint campaign statement that “the Park Geun-hye administration is making the union an illegal group and drawing condemnations from international labor unions.”

Three of the 13 chiefs re-elected in the June 4 races - in North Jeolla, South Jeolla and Gwangju - said in a hearing in 2013 that they recognize the union as a legal group.

If the liberal superintendents ignore directions from the Education Ministry, it’s not clear what the ministry can do in return.

“As we haven’t been in a situation like this before,” an Education Ministry official said, “we might have to consider filing suits against the superintendents if they resist the ministry.”

Another potential area of disagreement will be whether to use government-published Korean history textbooks.

In July, the Education Ministry will decide whether to publish history textbooks and order all middle and high schools to use those books, an ambition by President Park Geun-hye to nurture the “right perception of Korean history” for students.

The 13 liberal superintendents already vowed in their joint campaign pledges to resist history textbooks published by the government.

They said if the government forces such textbooks on them, they will publish their own history textbooks for parallel use.

They claim that books written by the Park administration could be less harsh in describing Japanese colonial rule in Korea and overly positive about the military dictatorship of Park’s father, Park Chung Hee.

“Starting in 2017, Korean history will be a mandatory subject for the College Scholastic Ability Test,” an Education Ministry official said. “And in that case, no student will bother with textbooks published by the liberal superintendents because all of the test’s questions will be based on the government-written books.”

Another point of contention is whether to shut down the so-called autonomous high schools. Those private, prestigious schools maintain financial independence from the government and in return are granted more freedom in picking students, creating their curriculum and charging tuition.

Since launched under the Lee Myung-bak administration, however, more and more autonomous schools have asked the Ministry of Education to turn them back into ordinary schools because they could not fill their classrooms. As a result, in August 2013, the government started to shut down some inefficient autonomous schools.

The liberal superintendents are calling for a review of all the autonomous schools, which they consider elitist.

Whether to punish a group of teachers who called for the resignation of the president in the wake of the sinking of the Sewol in April is also expected to be a hot issue.

The liberal superintendents basically oppose punishing the teachers. The ministry wants them punished.

The Supreme Court has previously upheld a lower court’s ruling that acquitted a superintendent who refused the ministry’s order to punish a teacher who criticized the president.

Education specialists say if the liberal superintendents keep protesting major policies of the central government, the ultimate victims will be parents and students who are caught in between.

“In terms of history textbooks, if the government hastily pushes forward with its plan, it will trigger a backlash [from the superintendents],” Kim Seong-yeol, an educational studies professor at Kyungnam University, said.

“If the liberal superintendents publish textbooks on their own, their books will become meaningless to students. Through discussions and negotiations, they should reach some agreement over the issue.”

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