Don't close S. Korea's elite schools: The Korea Herald

Students sit the annual Scolastic Aptitude Test at a the Poongmun high school in Seoul on Nov 13, 2014.
Students sit the annual Scolastic Aptitude Test at a the Poongmun high school in Seoul on Nov 13, 2014.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on 26 June, the paper argues against the South Korean government's unilateral approach to education reform.

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It is not wrong to say there are problems with some of the nation's elite high schools. It is wrong, however, to shut them down altogether in the name of equality and education reform.

A big question is why students - not only those who currently attend the schools but also those who have been preparing to enter them - and their parents should go through such confusion due to the short-sighted, politically motivated move.

Removing some elite schools from the high school system has been a pet plank of liberal educators and politicians who chant the equality mantra. Their position has been bolstered by the election victory of President Moon Jae-in, who promised to close down some of the elite high schools.

Quickly moving to take advantage of the changed political environment, Gyeonggi Province education chief Lee Jae-jung had already announced plans to turn foreign language schools and "autonomous" private schools in the province into ordinary ones.

Lee specifically said the provincial education office will turn foreign language and autonomous schools into ordinary ones by denying them renewal of licenses that are needed every five years.

Cho Hee-yon, another liberal who heads the Seoul Education Office, also indicated he would take the same course of action to get rid of the elite schools in the capital.

Their logic is simple: The elite schools are mainly for the children of the "rich and privileged" and they put a hierarchy into the high school system.

There are 81 foreign language and autonomous private schools across the country. Basically, they charge higher tuition fees - about three times as much as ordinary schools - to maintain financial autonomy without government subsidies.

By doing this, they enjoy greater freedom than ordinary private and public schools for school operations, including admissions and curricula.

Critics argue the schools encourage excessive - and expensive - private tutoring for middle school students as they serve as a sort of gateway to prestigious colleges.

Indeed, the foreign language and autonomous schools draw the nation's brightest and occupy the top ranks in the number of students admitted into prestigious colleges.

Such problems, however, are something that can be addressed, not something to be exploited only to block elite education.

As liberals argue, equality and fairness are very important elements of education. Equally is the pursuit of diversity and excellence, all the more so as we are in the era of the fourth industrial revolution.

It is ironic that part of elite high school education - including the introduction of predecessors of the current autonomous private schools - was initiated by former President Kim Dae-jung, whose liberal administration laid the basis for the Roh Moo-yun administration and the Moon administration as well.

As critics of the elite schools insist, there may be some gaps - including those of academic levels - between them and other schools. Such gaps exist even among ordinary private and public schools.

Another big problem is the way officials push for closing down the elite schools is hardly educational or democratic. As Oh Se-mok, principal of Joongdong High School, an autonomous private school in Seoul, noted, neither the central government nor the Seoul Education Office contacted the schools before making such an important policy decision.

It was right for Oh, who heads the association of autonomous private high schools, to criticise in a news conference last week the education authorities for pushing for what he called a "populist policy" in a "dictatorial" way.

It is not easy for a principal of a school that is regulated and supervised by officials to stand up to them in such a courageous manner, especially at a time when a new government is flexing its muscles in the name of reform.

That testifies to the gravity of the issue. Principals like Oh and parents of students at the elite schools have been organising themselves to oppose the plan to shut them down.

The confrontation between education authorities and the principals and parents will reach it peak this week as Cho, the Seoul superintendent, plans to announce whether he plans to renew licenses of five schools Wednesday.

Education should be insulated from politics, and the pursuit of excellence in education cannot be compromised. The campaign to preserve foreign language and autonomous high schools should be cheered on. Filing litigation against education authorities could be one way to fight.

The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.