Members of an education subpanel under a presidential commission on the advancement of local autonomy last week worked out a draft plan to abolish the direct election of educational superintendents. The move came a day after the conservative ruling Saenuri Party formed a task force to review how to change the current system.
There has been persistent concern about problems with the election of educational superintendents. But the latest moves by presidential advisers and ruling party officials are ill-timed and even brazen.
In the months leading up to the June 4 local polls to select heads of regional education offices, along with governors, mayors and municipal councilors, some civic groups joined hands to stage a campaign against the problematic system. Their campaign, however, drew little political attention.
The main political parties also turned a deaf ear to calls for restoring the requirement for educational superintendent candidates to have at least five years of experience teaching students or handling matters related to education. When they revised the law years ago to eliminate the qualification, both of the rival parties argued that the measure would allow figures with more varied backgrounds to enhance the diversity and efficiency of educational administration. Still, there was suspicion that the rare bipartisan agreement had the ulterior motive of paving the way for some populist politicians to run for the educational post on the back of their public recognition.
The lifting of the qualification requirement crowded the races for educational superintendents in 17 metropolises and provinces across the country. Though party affiliation was banned, liberal candidates leaning toward the opposition won more than two-thirds of the contests, with the high number of conservative contenders splitting right-leaning voters.
It is only natural that questions have been raised about whether the ruling party and the presidential advisory group would have taken the same steps after the election if the results had gone the other way.
For most people, the answer is “certainly not.” If they had really intended to abolish the direct popular election of education chiefs due to its negative effects, they should have made their intentions clear before the latest ballots, pledging to reform the system, even if conservative candidates won a landslide victory. Now, the ruling party needs to wait for the momentum to build up again toward serious discussion on the matter.
True, the public perception is increasingly that the current system should be improved in some way. To finance expensive electoral campaigns, many candidates are tempted to resort to illegal means. Of the 16 metropolitan and provincial superintendents elected in 2010, nine have been implicated in corruption and other wrongdoings. Often elected on a low turnout, with less than a third of ballots cast, many educational superintendents have had their legitimacy called into question. In the next four years, the confrontation between progressive superintendents and Education Ministry officials is expected to worsen over issues including disciplining politically active teachers and reducing the number of elite high schools.
Though the current system needs to be improved, it may be too hasty to return to the appointment of education chiefs by the central government or local administrative heads. The adoption of the direct popular vote can be seen as reflecting the constitutional values regarding the autonomy and political neutrality of education. A practical alternative may be to hold direct elections in a more limited way, by giving voting rights only to parents of students, teachers and other educational officials.