Liberal education chiefs on track to clash with ministry

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Jun 8, 2014 - 21:31
  • Updated : Jun 8, 2014 - 21:39
With the June 4 local elections in the books, liberals have won the races for education superintendent in 13 of 17 cities and provinces and are set to transform the nation’s academic landscape from a competition-driven learning environment to one that provides equal opportunities for everyone.

But with liberals in the drivers’ seat, a slew of conflicts with the government may be lurking, as the reform-oriented educators have been at loggerheads with the Education Ministry over a series of policies including the reduction of elite high schools, legal status of the left-leaning teachers’ union, and the part-time teachers system.

The government is currently engaged in a legal battle with the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union ― the largest body of teachers in Korea ― over whether it can be recognized as a legal union. If the Seoul Administrative Court rules in favor of the government on June 19, the Education Ministry is expected to enforce measures such as urging union members to leave office. But as eight of the newly elected superintendents are former KTU members, they are expected to put up a fight to protect the controversial union.

The Education Ministry is also at odds with the left over punishing teachers who publicly called for President Park Geun-hye to take responsibility for the Sewol incident and step down. While the ministry vowed the teachers would be punished, newly elected “progressive” superintendents such as Lee Jae-jeong of Gyeonggi Province said the teachers were entitled to their own opinions and should not be reprimanded.

Potential run-ins with the government are not all that ail the education chiefs-to-be.

Another of their key policies involves expanding welfare programs such as free lunch and education. Cho Hi-yeon, Seoul superintendent-elect, has vowed that he would work in tandem with reelected Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, his longtime partner in the civil rights movement, to transform the capital into a “welfare-based city.” Lee Jae-jeong of Gyeonggi Province, which has the most students in Korea, vowed to expand government support for fees for field trips, school uniforms and even yearbooks.
Cho Hi-yeon, Seoul education superintendent-elect. (Yonhap)

As liberals bombarded voters with pledges, skepticism has emerged about whether they are feasible. Lee said that in order to carry out his plans, he needed an extra 2 trillion won ($2 billion) a year, which is over 20 percent of the current budget. There had been concerns that the increase in free lunch, education programs would gobble up money needed to repair school buildings.

Despite the probable oncoming battles with the government, however, the liberals are in the apposite position to carry out their education reforms.

As of July, left-leaning superintendents will be in charge of spending an annual budget of 45.9 trillion won ($44.9 billion) to educate some 6 million students, accounting for 85 percent of all students in Korea. Their commanding victory on Wednesday was indicator for the voters’ discontent with the current education system.

Cho Hi-yeon, a former sociology professor at Sungkonghoe University who was elected Seoul’s education chief, said his victory reflected the citizens’ desire for new form of education.

“I think it (election win) is a result of the citizens’ desire to change. Students are forced to enter a fierce war not to become a ‘loser’ in the society, but even winners are not very happy,” Cho said. “The parents are demanding us to change the cruel reality of education today, such as unequal learning opportunities.”

Cho said that the recent sinking of the Sewol ferry ― which the claimed lives of over 200 people ― may have reminded parents that the wellbeing and happiness of students is more important for than simply going to a prestigious university. He said there was a nationwide urge achieve equal learning environment for students.

In keeping with the theme of more egalitarian education, all newly-elected superintendents have said they will gradually reduce or even abolish elitist autonomous private high schools and expand innovative school programs to pursue new ways of learning.

The two programs have been the key point of conflict between liberals and conservatives. Liberals said autonomous schools, which are given free rein in terms of curriculum in exchange for not receiving government aid, segregated students from poor families from wealthy ones. Conservatives, on the other hand, vowed to axe the innovative schools and keep autonomous programs.

With reform-driven figures taking the helm of most education offices, the innovative school programs are expected to take off.

By Yoon Min-sik (