A rapid expansion of the free lunch program for students is taking its toll on teachers and poorer students. For many metropolitan and provincial educational offices, the program has become a massive budgetary black hole that sucks up funds set aside for other purposes.
The seriousness of the problem is well-illustrated by a plunge this year in the number of newly appointed teachers. In February, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education appointed only 3.5 percent ― 38 out of 990 ― eligible candidates who passed the annual teacher certification exam, placing the remainder on a waiting list.
There are now 1,087 certified teachers, including 135 who passed the exam last year, who remain unassigned.
This year’s appointment rate is far lower than last year’s 45.6 percent, and the rate in 2012, 32.2 percent. This phenomenon is not unique to Seoul. In Gangwon Province, none of this year’s 220 newly certified teachers were assigned. In Daegu City, the education office appointed 57 teachers but they were all from last year’s crop.
The main reason for this woeful situation is, of course, the lack of vacancies. Then why are there so few vacancies this year? Because many older teachers who wanted to retire ahead of the retirement age were forced to stay on due to a shortage of funds to pay them early retirement allowances.
According to the Education Ministry, a total of 5,164 teachers across the nation applied for early retirement as of February, an increase of 23 percent from last year. The surge was due to the government’s move to reduce pension benefits for public officials, including teachers.
Of the applicants, 54.6 percent, or 2,818 teachers, were allowed to retire, with the remainder forced to stay on. This proportion was much smaller than the 90.3 percent last year.
The central government provided the 17 local educational offices with 725.8 billion won to help them cover early retirement allowances. But they used only 234.6 billion won of it to pay for the allowances, spending the rest in other ways.
Part of the funds was diverted to finance the increasingly costly free lunch program. In 2010, some 560 billion won was spent on it across the nation. Yet the figure soared to 2.46 trillion won last year and will rise to 2.62 trillion won this year. As the program’s coverage continues to expand, it will suck up more funds in the years to come.
It is total nonsense that education offices cannot let older teachers retire early due to a lack of funds to pay their retirement allowances. Teachers who have made up their mind to quit cannot be expected to put their hearts and souls into teaching students. They should be allowed to retire, making room for young, enthusiastic teachers.
The free lunch program has also forced education offices to slash support for poorer students. They have cut down on spending for after-school programs and experience-based English-learning opportunities for students from low-income families. Some education offices have also cut their budget for repairing old school buildings.
The current situation begs the question, “What are schools for?” Feeding students may be important. But teaching them well should come first. Education officials need to get their priorities right. If the free lunch program cannot be scaled down, they need to find ways to ensure that all newly certified teachers are assigned positions.