Gyeonggi faces budget dilemma

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Gyeonggi faces budget dilemma

Gyeonggi authorities on Monday were forced to present an interim budget for 2016 as bipartisan lawmakers in the regional assembly failed to reach an agreement over spending plans, most notably the controversial Nuri Program, a national childcare initiative that finances 3- to 5-year-olds.

The Nuri Program, a key childcare initiative of the Park Geun-hye administration, refers to an educational welfare project launched in 2012 that aims to improve the overall development of young children, by offering monthly vouchers to each household regardless of income.

Authorities in Gyeonggi, which is home to about one-third (27 percent) of all the country’s Nuri Program beneficiaries, failed to agree on a New Year’s budget for the program by the end of December and were forced to temporarily work with last year’s budget, the first metropolitan-area education office ever to face such a scenario.

As to how it may affect Gyeonggi children, an official from the Ministry of Education said that “imminent changes will not occur” for day care centers because parents will still be funded this month. But kindergartens will suffer since Gyeonggi’s education office would no longer finance parents under the interim budget program - 200,000 won ($168) for each student attending a private institute and 60,000 won for public institutes.

That means the directors of those establishments would have to find a way to cover that expense, which could lead to a greater push for parents to pay more tuition.

Controversy surrounding the program has snowballed in recent years, particularly when regional education offices began to take full financial responsibility last year. Previously, subsidies were partly financed by national taxes, local taxes and grants for regional education offices provided by the Ministry of Education.

The central government initially promised households that it would gradually raise monthly vouchers each year, from 240,000 won in 2014, to 270,000 won in 2015 and 300,000 won in 2016, but ongoing controversy and empty coffers forced authorities to limit the bond.

Citing its own debts, some regional education offices drastically downsized their Nuri Program budget last year and refused to sustain it, clashing with the central government and raising jitters among parents.

Among the 17 regional education offices in Korea, seven have so far not set aside a single penny for 3- to 4-year-olds in the program. Regional education authorities in Seoul, Gwangju, Gyeonggi and South Jeolla managed to draw an annual budget for 5-year-olds, only to be blocked in the regional assemblies, mostly made up of lawmakers from the main opposition party.

Aside from the financial setbacks, the Nuri Program has also drawn steady backlash from the Minjoo Party of Korea, formerly known as the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, for largely political purposes. It argues that the central government should back up its own initiatives.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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