Gov’t unveils its plan for free high schooling

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Gov’t unveils its plan for free high schooling

Korea will provide free education to all high school students from 2021 and split the budget between the central government and local education offices, the Blue House, ruling Democratic Party and Education Ministry announced Tuesday. Related laws will be amended to carry out the program, authorities said.

Korea is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that charges high school students for education. Korea currently offers free education only to elementary and middle school students.

Providing free education for high school students is a key pillar of President Moon Jae-in’s education policy - one that he promised before entering the Blue House in May 2017 - as he strives to build a so-called inclusive nation.

Former conservative President Park Geun-hye promised the same thing during her 2012 presidential campaign but failed to follow through due in part to a backlash from local education offices because they had to pay more.

The Education Ministry said Tuesday that all municipal and provincial education chiefs have agreed to offering free high school education, but some critics doubt that the positive mood will last, given that new education chiefs will be elected three years later and they could have different thoughts. The government hopes to fully implement the free high school education system before then.

Some of the country’s largest teachers’ unions welcomed the announcement Tuesday but feared local education offices might not be able to finance the program.

According to a blueprint of the plan announced by the Education Ministry Tuesday, the free education program will first affect 12th graders from this fall semester, their costs covered by local education offices.

The ministry projected 385.6 billion won (about $338 million) will be needed. Korea’s high school system is composed of three grades, not four like in the United States.

From 2020, the free education program will expand to include 11th graders. All three grades will fall under the program from 2021.

The central government and local education offices will roughly split the cost from 2020 through 2024. Local government offices will have to contribute, too, but their portion will be minimal, said the Education Ministry.

Asked during a press conference Tuesday how authorities will divide the cost after 2024, a ministry representative replied that finances, education policies and demographics continually change, which is why the government would have to consider those circumstances once the free education system is fully settled in 2024 to decide the ratio anew.

Under the Education Ministry’s blueprint, about 2 trillion won would be needed to provide free education to all high school students in 2021.

Local government offices will have to pay 5 percent of that (101.9 billion won), the central government 47.5 percent (946.6 billion won) and local education offices 47.5 percent (946.6 billion won).

Local education offices currently set aside about 538 billion won every year for paying high school fees for children of low-income households.

The central government sets aside 148 billion won for the same purpose. That means that in 2021, the local education office will have to additionally pay an estimated 407.8 billion won and the central government an additional 798.5 billion won.

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