Embattled elite schools fight to stay open

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Jul 27, 2014 - 19:57
  • Updated : Jul 27, 2014 - 19:57
As far as education is concerned, South Koreans rarely make compromises. Especially when it comes to getting into better colleges, conflicts are bound to intensify, and the ongoing dispute over the planned abolishment of elite schools is a prime example.

The newly elected Seoul education chief Cho Hi-yeon seeks to abolish the autonomous private high school system. But parents and principals from those elite schools claim such a move would hurt the students.

Some 2,000 parents of students attending autonomous private schools gathered in front of the Bosingak Bell in Jung-gu, central Seoul, Friday, to criticize Cho for allegedly taking discriminatory actions against the schools.

The blazing heat of July did not seem to deter the angry parents, mostly mothers, who shouted slogans and sang songs demonstrating their will to protect their schools’ status and their privileges, which include freedom over the curriculum and the right to handpick students via interviews.

“As the education superintendent, he (Cho) should not try to get rid of autonomous schools, but should push for a policy in which all schools exist in harmony,” said Yang Sun-ji, the head of an association of parents from autonomous private high schools. “We are mulling legal actions against Cho in the event that he revokes our schools’ status unfairly.”

A 44-year-old woman surnamed Bae whose son is a sophomore at Janghoon High School ― a Seoul-based autonomous school ― expressed concerns about how the feud over the schools’ status may affect her son.

“The students can’t study as they are fully aware of the situation,” she said. “The SMOE should focus on helping students study, but instead they have to suffer through policy changes every time a new education chief takes office. Children are not sandbags, you know.”

Bae expressed doubts over the SMOE’s promises to provide financial aid to ensure smooth transitions into regular high schools. “I don’t trust him. It’s all talk. What we want is to protect our school,” she said.

The gradual abolishment of the de facto elite schools was one of the key election pledges by Cho and other progressive education chiefs prior to the June local elections. They blamed the schools for causing disparities in learning opportunities among students.

In the wake of the sweeping victory by the progressives, who took 13 of 17 education offices nationwide, the autonomous schools appear to be all but doomed. Education circles also suspect that the superintendents are facing pressure from the left bloc, which gave them full support, and which is demanding an end to the elite school system.

A recent survey by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education showed that over 60 percent of citizens said the autonomous private high schools should be abolished.

But the cornered and desperate schools are proving to be a tough challenge for Cho, who is still adapting to his new post.

“State policies should be scrapped only when there is a serious flaw with them, after careful consideration and consultation. Inconsistency in education policy will lead to chaos,” said Kim Yong-bok, the principal of Paichai High School and the head of the association of principals of autonomous private high schools in Seoul

Kim Jung-wook, the spokesperson of the right-leaning Citizens’ Alliance for Saving Public Education, said that abolishing the elite schools would only result in lowering the overall quality of education.

“What the progressives are doing is grabbing the students who excel in the classroom and dragging them down to the level of other students,” he said. Because autonomous private schools do not receive government subsidies, the SMOE saves money, and it should spend this on regular schools, he said.

Kim said that equal learning opportunities should not come at the cost of limiting one’s freedom. “Some students are going to do better than others. Just let them be.”

By Yoon Min-sik (