Seoul decries private preschools

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Seoul decries private preschools

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education on Thursday announced that it may revoke the corporate license of a major association of private kindergarten administrators after accusing its members of illegally asking for political donations to lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) in order to derail the ruling party’s drive to reform the country’s private preschools.

According to Seoul’s education office, several members of the Korea Kindergarten Association (KKA) - the largest federation of private preschool administrators in the country - posted bank account numbers of LKP lawmakers last November inside a KKA chat room with over 3,000 association members. They asked for donations of around 100,000 won ($90).

Dozens sent the money, though some of it was returned by the lawmakers since current campaign finance laws bans any donations procured in the interest of business or client relations. The method of splitting a large donation into small sums in the name of multiple individuals is a well-known, illegal practice in Korean politics.

“While these political funds were donated in the names of private individuals, there is room to interpret that these political donations were encouraged by a corporate foundation,” said a spokesperson of the education office.

The spokesperson added that the office also found evidence of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds by the KKA’s leaders and had already requested an investigation by prosecutors into the alleged misconduct.

“The KKA operates under a private corporate license founded with official purposes of research and academics,” the spokesperson said. “We will have to look at the results of the prosecutorial investigation, but given that the organization has already conducted many activities contrary to its founding principles, a revocation of its corporate license looks inevitable.”

The KKA, which has over 4,000 members nationwide, said it would cooperate with any investigation but denied that the organization played any part in asking for political donations, saying that the payments were solely the initiative of its individual members.

It is no secret, however, that the KKA has coordinated closely with the LKP ever since a ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmaker last October exposed massive accounting fraud at over a thousand private kindergartens nationwide, much of it involving government subsidies.

The same DP lawmaker, Rep. Park Yong-jin, followed up these revelations with a sweeping bill that month to overhaul public funding to private kindergartens and make accounting more transparent at these schools by making them subscribe to an online system that relays their accounting data to government auditors.

This plan, as well as the Education Ministry’s own plans to build hundreds of new public preschools to reduce dependence on private institutions, incited massive backlash from the KKA.

The association insists that the operation of their schools is solely in the domain of private interests and that the government has no right to interfere with them.

Several LKP lawmakers openly sided with the KKA, even inviting members to a public debate at the National Assembly in November. Park accused the LKP of receiving lobbying funds from the KKA in order to defeat his reform bill. Fierce opposition to the bill from the LKP prevented it from reaching the floor for a vote last year, and its future remains uncertain in the heavily polarized legislature.

But this accusation of lobbying was not the only one used by the education office to justify possibly revoking the KKA’s corporate license.

The organization picked its current board chairman through methods that violated its own constitution, which would annul his election, the education office said.

Several million won were allegedly embezzled from the organization’s coffers by its five board members from 2016 to 2017, money that had been paid as membership fees by private kindergartens.

Moreover, most of the 1.8 billion won used by the KKA to host a massive rally attended by around 10,000 private kindergarten administrators and associates on Nov. 29 was found to have been funded by tuition money parents paid to these schools.

Given that misappropriation of funds was the primary reason why parents have vocally criticized private preschools, these newest revelations may add public momentum to the government’s drive to implement reforms.

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