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Seoul education chief vows to cut elite schools

The Seoul education chief said Monday he was still bent on cutting the number of autonomous private high schools despite being turned down by the Education Ministry, nearly two weeks after his bombshell announcement to revoke the status of eight of them.

“Legally speaking, the superintendent is the one who has the right (to change the status of autonomous schools). The law only requires me to discuss the matter with the ministry,” said Cho Hi-yeon, the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, in an interview with local media.

The left-leaning educator was unfazed by the Education Ministry’s vow to refuse to consider his request to change the schools’ status. The ministry stated its position last month and once again on Sept. 1, just hours before Cho announced that the names of eight schools whose privileges ― including the right to charge more for tuition, more leeway in choosing their curriculums than regular schools, and the right to handpick students via interviews ― would be changed in October.

“The ministry publicly announced that it would turn down our (the SMOE’s) request three weeks before we sent the official papers. This leads us to suspect that the decision was politically motivated,” he said.

The issue of autonomous private high schools has been a major flashpoint in ideological disputes in education circles. The conservatives, who believe in a competition-based education system, have lobbied to preserve the schools, while progressives, in favor of a more egalitarian system, have worked to gradually abolish them to salvage the faltering status of regular schools.

“Looking at the big picture, (the existence of the) autonomous private high school is one of the major reasons that regular schools are being sidelined,” Cho said. “Former President Park Chung-hee himself, the father of incumbent President Park Geun-hye, pushed to standardize high schools in Korea. Abolishing these high schools is the school standardization of 2014.”

The SMOE said Monday it will host a hearing for the eight schools from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1. At the hearing, the schools will offer evidence to prove why the SMOE should retain their status.

A major dispute involving the de facto elite schools concerns which of the parties has the right to revoke the rights of autonomous schools. The current ordinance states that education superintendents must “confer” with the Education Ministry, touching off a debate over whether ministerial consent is needed to cancel their designation.

Earlier this month, the ministry announced that it would push to revise the ordinance to ensure that it has the final say on the status of the elite schools.

But a further dispute came about when Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo of the minor opposition Justice Party said that the ministry had originally attempted to remove the clause on education chiefs needing to confer with the government. Citing ministry data, he said the attempt was part of a pangovernmental drive for deregulation, as removing unnecessary regulations has been one of President Park’s main policies since taking office.

“The Education Ministry’s flip-flopping policies will only result in confusion, not only for parents and students, but also for the entire education sector,” Jeong said.

Another issue in the dispute is the legitimacy of the SMOE’s reevaluation of the autonomous private schools. The ministry has said the SMOE cannot reassess the schools since they already passed the tests in June. The SMOE, however, claimed that in the first evaluation major flaws of the schools were overlooked.

Some of the schools to be stripped of their status committed fraudulent acts related to admissions, accounting and student records, according to SMOE data revealed by Kim Moon-soo, a member of the Seoul Metropolitan City Council. The cited wrongdoings could lead to a revocation of status regardless of the evaluation results.

By Yoon Min-sik (