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Free school meals to cost 13 trillion won over 5 years

Free lunch for every student will cost more than 13 trillion won ($11 billion) for five years, a report by the National Assembly’s budgetary committee found Tuesday.

A total of 13.44 trillion won, including 2.77 trillion won this year, will be needed in the coming five years to offer free meals at all schools, according to the report disclosed by Rep. Kim Dong-sung of the ruling Grand National Party.

It will take 3.58 trillion won to feed elementary school students alone for five years, the report said.

That means if the controversial free school meals start from March, local governments and education offices have to shoulder up to double the costs they already pay.

School meals originally started with government subsidies under the control of the Ministry of Education and Science Technology. Since 2005, however, each local government has been in charge of financing the business without government support.

In 2009, 99.9 percent of the total 11,312 schools nationwide offered school meals, feeding about 7.34 million students, or 98.5 percent of the total, every day.

Of the 4.8 trillion won spent on school meals in the same year, 3.17 trillion won, or 62.8 percent, was paid by children’s parents while the remainder was shared by education offices and local governments.

“The costs for free school meals will be shouldered by individual education offices, not by government expenditure. I doubt whether they could afford to pay an enormous amount of money,” said Rep. Shim Jae-cheol, GNP policy chief.

“I think we have confirmed again the blind spot of the free meal idea.”

The issue of free meals for every student has been at the center of fierce political disputes recently.

Despite resistance from the ruling party and conservative civic groups, most local governments, dominated by the members from the main opposition Democratic Party, have decided to offer free lunches.

Starting with first to fourth graders at elementary schools in March, opposition parties and education offices are pushing ahead the plan covering all students in several stages.

Facing the fiercest disputes may be the Seoul Metropolitan Government where Mayor Oh Se-hoon and the city council have been at odds for months.

Last year, the DP-dominated Seoul City Council allocated 69.5 billion won for free school meals while cutting budgets on the city’s ongoing construction projects such as building an opera house on an island in the Han River and developing new seaways.

After their latest meeting ended without agreement recently, Oh declined to attend the council’s regular sessions, calling for withdrawal of the “populist decision.”

By Lee Ji-yoon (jylee@heraldcorp.com)
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