This is no issue for a political fight

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This is no issue for a political fight

The South Gyeongsang government stopped supplying free lunches at public schools this month. As expected, parents and various interest groups protested. Teachers in the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union skipped lunch as part of a “hunger strike” and held classroom debates on the free meal policy. Some parents have refused to pay for their children’s lunches or stopped sending them to school altogether.

But the local government’s decision to end the fully subsidized school meal program, citing a lack of funding, has become more than a food fight. It has sparked ideological and political wrangling. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) issued a statement lamenting that no provincial legislators were protesting the governor’s move and attacked the ruling Saenuri Party for turning a blind eye.

However, before the situation is overblown, let’s get the facts straight. The South Gyeongsang provincial government is not saying it will do away with the 64.3 billion won ($58.6 million) budget set aside to subsidize free school meals for all students. Instead, it wants to use the money to better help children from poor and low-income families. Students from low-income families will continue to get their lunches for free. These students would also be given support to help pay for related school expenses. Other local governments could follow suit if the experiment succeeds, and South Gyeongsang’s actions could serve as a turning point for universal welfare programs.

The fallout from these programs - sought competitively by legislators from both the ruling and opposition parties in past elections - have begun to take a toll. Fiscal spending to finance free school meals reached 2.6 trillion won last year, while day care service totaled 3.8 trillion won. Fixed expenditures comprise the necessary spending for that year. But the free services came at the expense of other school programs and renovations.

Spending for school repairs and renovations plunged 40 percent over the past five years. Some say the free meal program could be sustained if other unnecessary expenditures are cut. But is investment in education and facilities an unnecessary expenditure?

Action must therefore be taken from a practical and viable perspective, not one that is ideologically and politically motivated. The administration must prove that weaker students have effectively benefited from this selective program. Welfare issues must no longer serve to help a politician’s popularity.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 2, Page 30

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