Gov’t plans preschool overhaul

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Gov’t plans preschool overhaul

The government announced a plan on Thursday to increase the share of children attending public preschools to 40 percent by 2021, pledging to add around a thousand new classes within the next year to achieve the goal.

The Ministry of Education and the ruling Democratic Party revealed a package of measures to expand the government’s role in early childhood education at the National Assembly on Thursday in response to a recent scandal over the misuse of public funds at over a thousand private kindergartens nationwide.

“These plans were fundamentally designed to strengthen the state’s responsibility in childcare,” said Minister of Education Yoo Eun-hae after the announcement. “They will serve as a turning point to advance preschool education.”

The plan will speed up a preexisting Education Ministry plan, which set 2022 as the target year for raising the public preschool enrollment rate to 40 percent. The issue was one of the major promises President Moon Jae-in made during his presidential campaign in the spring of 2017. The objective is to increase the number of children between the ages of 3 to 5 attending public kindergartens from the current 172,000 (24.8 percent) to 224,000 (40 percent).

To support the amended enrollment goal, the ministry plans to establish a thousand new classrooms next year. The government will make dozens of private preschools public through methods like joint administration, long-term leases or by outright purchasing the schools from individual owners.

Public preschools are in high demand in Korea, as they are cheaper than private options and are subject to strict oversight. Most are already overcrowded, and parents across the country have long been calling for more to be established.

To level the difference in oversight of public and private preschools, the plan will mandate that all kindergartens implement a state-run accounting program by 2020. This measure would allow the authorities to keep track of how public money is spent at the institutions. The system will first be applied to large kindergartens that host over 200 children by next year before gradually expanding to all preschools. Parents and taxpayers alike were incensed when a lawmaker revealed earlier this month that 1,878 private preschools had falsely recorded or misappropriated approximately 26.9 billion won ($23.7 million) in public funds from 2013 to 2017, based on records obtained from Education Ministry audits.

Private kindergartens receive government day care subsidies as part of a program known as the Nuri Curriculum, which costs 2 trillion won a year. Launched in 2012 to ensure all children between the ages of three and five receive equal educational opportunities, the program gives private preschools 290,000 won per child. This public financing is a crucial portion of their revenues.

Measures to combat misappropriation and raise education standards at private preschools were also included in Thursday’s announcement. They will change the criteria by which administrators are assessed by local education boards and encourage privately owned schools to operate under a corporate license. The teacher-to-student ratio per classroom will also be lowered to ensure that instructors provide each child with greater attention.

The Korea Kindergarten Association, a federation that represents private preschools nationwide, reacted to the government’s plans on Thursday with fierce indignation, calling it “extremely shocking” and unacceptable to most private kindergartens under the current circumstances. In a text message sent to journalists, the association said it would cancel a press conference it scheduled earlier to offer its response to the government announcement.

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