Minister slams school chiefs over day care threat

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Minister slams school chiefs over day care threat

Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan lashed out at education chiefs yesterday for their joint warning the day before that they can’t afford to finance a free day care program, saying they were taking the public and young toddlers hostage.

The deputy prime minister’s stern remarks yesterday came a day after an association of education superintendents announced they will not pay for a nationwide day care program next year, threatening to shut down the free service for preschool kids that the government began providing in 2012 as part of its embrace of a wider welfare system.

“It is regrettable that [the dispute] has come down to a warning to the government that takes the public and children as hostages,” said Choi during a meeting with cabinet members at the Central Government Complex in Seoul.

The economic policy chief urged the 17 education chiefs to fulfill their obligations by earmarking the budget necessary to offer the free day care program in accordance with the law.

The education chiefs association said Tuesday it was not up to their offices to pay for day care centers because they are not educational institutions.

But the main reason they are refusing to pay for day care services is a lack of funds available from education office coffers.

Previously, funding for the subsidies for kindergartens and day care centers for preschool children, which amounted to 3.9 trillion won ($3.6 billion), was financed by national taxes, local taxes and grants for local education offices, which are provided by the Ministry of Education.

Of the 3.9 trillion won, 2.1 trillion won covered free stand-alone day care centers while the balance went to kindergartens.

Under the central government’s plan for 2015 and beyond, education offices will be solely responsible for financially supporting the free services at kindergartens and day care centers through the grants, an idea the education offices strongly reject.

The dispute between the government and the local education chiefs is the outcome of a flood of increased welfare benefits introduced in recent years to meet politicians’ promises of a wider social safety net. Welfare budgets administered by local governments doubled from 17.3 trillion won in 2007 to 35 trillion won last year, leaving local governments scrambling to find ways to finance expanding welfare policies.

The scope of free day care was expanded under the Lee Myung-bak government, which decided to offer it to all families with 3- to 5-year-olds regardless of their income level by 2013. Prior to 2012, only families in the lower 70 percent income bracket were eligible for free day care.

Under Lee’s plan, approximately 1.2 million kids benefitted from the program last year.

As a result of the expansion, the budget for free day care service shot up from 445.2 billion won in 2012 to an estimated 2.1 trillion won for the next year. The education offices will be left alone to pay for the budget after the Education and Welfare ministries decided in 2012 the central government would stop paying as of next year.

Local governments have little money to spend on day care as their debts mushroom. Local governments’ combined debt surpassed the 100 trillion won mark for the first time in 2012. Of 244 local government offices, 127 are unable to pay their employees without support from the central government.

Analysts say it is now time to discuss resources to cover burgeoning welfare programs.

“The country needs to begin thinking about either repealing tax cuts or imposing more taxes to cover demand for welfare policies,” said Im Seung-bin, a professor of public administration at Myongji University. “The time has come for a social consensus to decide whether we reduce the scope of welfare benefits or increase taxes.”


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