Cheaper day care now in limbo

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Cheaper day care now in limbo

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Chairs are empty at a private kindergarten in Seoul on Wednesday as a standoff between the central government and regional education offices over the Nuri Program, which supports subsidies of day care fees, continues on. [NEWSIS]

Parents with young children in Seoul and several cities may be victims of a game of chicken played between the central government and regional education offices over how to fund the controversial Nuri Program, which subsidizes day care for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Wednesday was the deadline for regional education offices to pay financial support to kindergartens and day care centers. However, the education offices of Seoul, Gyeonggi, Gwangju and South Jeolla, did not provide the money after a negotiation between the central government and superintendents on Monday collapsed.

More than 3,000 kindergartens in Seoul and Gyeonggi are struggling to find money to keep operating.

Under the Nuri Program, the fees for day care were decreased by a maximum of 290,000 won ($238) for each student attending a private institute and a maximum of 110,000 won for public institutes. Parents pay the balance, which ranges from 10,000 to 200,000 won per month.

The Nuri Program, a key day care 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.

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. Central government support has been suspended this year.

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.

On Wednesday morning, a principal of a kindergarten in Suwon, Gyeonggi, vowed to parents dropping their children off that she will not raise fees in the wake of sudden budget cut.

“I will take responsibility to the end and will not put the burden on you,” Ms. Kwon, 56, told the parents.

Twelve parents at Kwon’s kindergarten, which previously had 152 children, have decided to stop sending their children over concerns that fees would be hiked in 2016.

The kindergarten, which usually gets its government financial support in the middle of the month, failed to receive 33 million won this month for 140 children’s subsidies. As it is illegal for kindergartens to borrow money from banks, Kwon is considering to borrow about 40 million won from acquaintances. With that money, Kwon can pay 20 employees’ January wages on Jan. 30.

Kwon is mulling shutting down the kindergarten if the impasse drags on.

“Now I’ve reached my limit,” Kwon said. “I don’t know why they are taking innocent children as hostages. The state has to take responsibility for our children.”

“I hate a country that encouraged people to have kids and now turns a blind eye,” said one of the parents, surnamed Lee, 39. “I will not send my child to kindergarten if I have to pay more.”

As the day care crisis in Korea deepened, 500 parents and teachers of kindergartens in Seoul hit the streets Wednesday in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Council to protest against both the central government and the education offices. They urged the city council, which cut the entire Nuri Program budget, to restore it.

A number of parents in other day care centers also stopped sending their children to kindergartens. Some kindergartens are mulling shutting their doors.

Lee Joon-sik, education minister and deputy prime minister for social affairs, plans to make a 10-minute speech before a general meeting of 17 educational superintendents today in Busan. He plans to appeal to the regional heads of the education.

“I don’t trust in the education ministry anymore. I think the president has to solve this crisis,” said Lee Jae-jung, education superintendent of Gyeonggi, at a press conference.

BY KIM SO-HEE, BAEK MIN-KYUNG [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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