Don’t prioritize welfare
Education finance is a major factor that determines the scope of activities, content and quality. Education is an area that requires uninterrupted investment. The financial scale must remain stable and unaffected by changes in external conditions to guarantee financial security.
In 2013, tax revenue allocated to each education office and the central government’s subsidy accounted for 74.3 percent of the total cost of education. Education fees transferred in special accounts from local governments made up 16.9 percent. In short, education offices rely on outside support for 91.2 percent of their funding. In expenditures, labor and other ficed costs accounted for 80.4 percent of spending. Finance at local education offices has little wiggle room in managing funds and the offices cannot afford the Nuri day-care program.
Of course there is another view. Conditions at elementary, middle and high schools have improved, and the number of students is declining due to the low birth rate. Yet funding for education has steadily increased, leaving more money to spend in other areas. The argument is that because there are fewer students, education funding should be reduced, as well. But it is not that simple.
First of all, 20.27 percent the government’s education subsidy comes from internal tax revenue and the rest from a separate education tax. When tax revenues fall due to the slow economy, the share that goes to education also can be pared.
In the 2015 budget, the amount allocated for education was reduced by 1.35 trillion won ($1.2 billion), or 3.3 percent, over the previous year to reflect the 2.7 trillion won tax revenue deficit after fiscal year 2013. The education budget is expected to be scaled down again due to a another shortfall in tax revenue this year.
Fewer students should not lead to a reduced education budget. The number of students one teacher is responsible for and overcrowding in schools have been improved, but they still hover below the average standards of schools in other countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As of 2012, the student-teacher ratio in Korea 18:1 in elementary and middle schools, and 15:1 in high schools. The OECD student-teacher ratio 15:1 for elementary schools, and14:1 for middle schools and high schools. The average class size in Korea is 25 students in elementary schools and 33 in middle schools, compared with the OECD average of 21 and 24.
Based on the declining number of students, the government pushed ahead with its ambitious education plans - free kindergarten and high school education in 2010-13, free school meals in 2011 and subsidies for day-care programs in 2012 - and has dumped other welfare projects onto local education offices. These projects have become the education authorities’ responsibility to fit into their budgets. There also has been rising demand for assisting less-privileged students.
Increasing demand in education welfare without increasing support from the central government has generated structural problems and strain in education spending. The share of welfare-related education policy funding in the education budget jumped to 9.4 percent in 2013 from 2.7 percent in 2008. Spending for classroom activities and teaching, which had exceeded welfare projects until 2012, was down more than 1 trillion won from 2013. Once high school education becomes free, extra large-scale fixed spending is inevitable. Yet many school facilities require urgent renovation. The need for safety in schools must be emphasized, since we suffered tragic human losses from the Sewol ferry sinking due largely to a lack of safety awareness. The education field requires continuous investment to upgrade standards.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
The author is a professor of the Teacher Education Department at Kyonggi University.
by Ha Bong-woon