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Round 2 of elite school row begins

Education authorities at loggerheads over right to cancel status of private high schools

Seoul education authorities and the government dug their heels in further over the issue of autonomous private high schools, with the former pushing to cancel their independent status and the latter insisting on retaining it.

An official from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education left for the Education Ministry Tuesday to seek governmental consent over the SMOE’s decision Monday to turn eight of 14 autonomous schools assessed in 2014 into regular schools.

The announcement was made on the heels of the ministry saying that it will not approve of any request by the Seoul office to strip the schools of their status. The SMOE had claimed that a comprehensive evaluation revealed that the cited schools failed to meet the required standards.

The conflicting announcements heralded further altercations between the Education Ministry and Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hi-yeon.

The issue of the autonomous schools has pitted the ministry against Cho and other progressive educators, who took the helm at the majority of education offices across Korea following victories in the June local elections. The left-leaning educators have insisted that gradually abolishing the schools was a key task in enhancing the faltering competence of regular schools. 
A group of student parents meets Seoul education chief Cho Hi-yeon to express their opposition to a move to cancel the status of autonomous private high schools in July. (Yonhap)
A group of student parents meets Seoul education chief Cho Hi-yeon to express their opposition to a move to cancel the status of autonomous private high schools in July. (Yonhap)

As the autonomous schools are granted relative freedom in their curriculum in exchange for not receiving government subsidies, they are subject to an official evaluation once every five years. The government-initiated test ― conducted under the authority of former Seoul Superintendent Moon Yong-rin ― had cleared all 14 schools for redesignation, but Cho raised questions about its legitimacy.

According to Korean law, local education chiefs have the authority to request that the Education Ministry revoke the privileges of the cited schools, including the right to collect higher tuition and to pick students independently via interviews.

But the actual process of revoking their status is up for interpretation. The ordinance on the issue states that superintendents must confer on the case with the ministry, which Cho and his legal advisers interpret as “not needing the actual approval of the government”

Mindful of the ambiguity, the ministry on Monday also announced that it would revise the ordinance to mandate the ministerial approval within this week.

The series of measures, which were taken after President Park Geun-hye urged the ministry to solve the issue in late August, prompted complaints from progressive educators and those within the SMOE.

“They are basically cheap shots to make canceling the designation of autonomous schools virtually impossible,” the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union said in a statement. “Education Ministry is arbitrarily interpreting the law to protect these schools.”

“The fact that the government changed the wording from ‘confer’ to ‘approval’ means it effectively admitted that the existing ordinance did not mandate the approval,” said an SMOE official. He also accused the ministry of infringing upon the autonomy of the local education office.

“If the ministry keeps changing the regulation for its convenience, there will be a lot of rule changes from now on,” he said.

With both sides adamant on the autonomous school conundrum, the issue is likely to escalate into a legal dispute. The SMOE is currently mulling whether to appeal the governmental measures to the Constitutional Court.

By Yoon Min-sik (