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Doubts over direct election of education chiefs

Some fear backpedaling on education autonomy, others see elections wasting taxpayers’ money

The election corruption scandal involving Kwak No-hyun, Seoul’s education superintendent, has many Koreans questioning whether a direct popular vote is the best way to select education chiefs.

The city’s first elected education boss, Gong Jeong-taek, was stripped of his seat because of bribes he received to bankroll his election campaign. 
Citizens hold pickets in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education on Wednesday, with one demanding the resignation of the education chief and the other vowing support for him. (Yonhap News)
Citizens hold pickets in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education on Wednesday, with one demanding the resignation of the education chief and the other vowing support for him. (Yonhap News)

And now Kwak, who was elected in June 2010 to fill the seat vacated by Gong, is under prosecutorial investigation over allegations that he paid a rival candidate in return for the candidate’s withdrawal from the race.

“The past two elections turned out to be a national waste of time and money. Do we have to hold another one to fill Kwak’s place, (if he leaves)?” a netizen wrote on Naver, the nation’s largest Internet portal, summarizing how many Koreans feel about the situation.

A survey of 700 people published Wednesday, revealed that 45 percent of respondents favored the abolishment of the direct election of education bosses, while 28 percent said they want the current system to be kept intact.

The issue is a growing point of contention between rival political parties, with some conservatives already campaigning to do away with the current system.

Direct popular votes to pick top education officials were introduced in 2007, hailed by the government as a major advancement toward education autonomy.

But they soon came under criticism as candidates engaged in overheated campaigns, spending billions of won in big cities such as Seoul, while voters remained largely apathetic.

Although education chiefs are banned from joining political parties, candidates made clear their political inclination, as policy and personal credentials gave way to political ideology as deciding factors influencing voters’ choice.

Aiming to tackle such problems, a group of lawmakers belonging to the conservative ruling Grand National Party plans to draw up a legislative proposal to have local education chiefs be appointed by their government chiefs.

Their idea is to give province governors or mayors, elected through a direct popular vote, the right to name the superintendent of their respective education offices and make their appointment subject to the approval of local councils.

“Corruption in the superintendent election is not just a personal problem,” said Rep. Jeong Tae-keun of the GNP, who says he will initiate the legislative bid.

“The system is flawed in that educators are forced to spend a huge amount of money on election campaigning, in which they have little experience, in order to become the superintendent,” he said.

Some other GNP members suggest a running mate system that ties local government and education chief candidates in a joint camp during the election. A related bill is already pending in the National Assembly for parliamentary approval.

Education Minister Lee Joo-ho said the government has been studying the system for sometime as a moderate way to complement the problem-ridden direct election system.

Liberals and some education experts fear such a move would turn the clock back to the authoritarian era, dampening education autonomy.

They also worry that the proposals run the risk of politicizing education affairs.

“The election system proved to have some problems. But that should not be a reason for scrapping the election itself,” said Rep. Byun Jae-il, a member of the main opposition Democratic Party and chair of the parliamentary committee on education.

Choi Hong-yi, a member of Seoul’s education board, says that it is premature to talk about giving up on direct elections, after holding only one or two elections.

“It takes time for every system to take root,” he said on a radio program.

“What we should do now is discuss measures to fix problems that we encountered so far and improve the election rules,” he said.

The selection process of education chiefs has gradually evolved into the current system. Until 1990, education chiefs were appointed by those in power. The system was then replaced by an electoral vote of a handful of education board members and then a vote of a wider group of school board members.

Direct popular votes opened the gate for left-leaning superintendents, including Kwak in Seoul, who often clashed with their local and central governments led by conservatives.

In such a clash, Kwak pushed for a program to provide free lunches to all elementary and middle school students, despite the opposition of former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and even President Lee Myung-bak.

Last week, Seoul citizens gave the superintendent a victory by ignoring a referendum called by Oh to block his plan. Oh resigned after the defeat.

By Lee Sun-young (