Reform to sweep schools
By Kang Shin-who
Kwak No-hyun, 56, the first-ever progressive educator to oversee policies governing elementary and secondary schools in Seoul, promised to drastically reform the way schools are operated in the capital.
"I will retool the framework of public schools," Kwak told reporters after he was elected superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education in the June 2 local elections. "I will do my best to narrow the gap in academic performance between schools."
Kwak, the first top educator in Seoul to be representative of the progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU), has strongly opposed competition-oriented policies favoring "elite schools," which had been led by conservative education chiefs so far.
Kwak, who is pursing egalitarian education, has vowed to invest as much tax money as possible to reduce the education gap between children from wealthy families and those from low-wage households. The ideology is based on the belief that all students should have the same opportunities to learn.
"The key factor behind my being elected is the aspiration of Seoul citizens that I should rectify the imbalance in educational opportunities," he said. "The new educational framework means greater support in areas where it is needed."
While the Lee Myung-bak administration has set up more elite or "autonomous private" high schools, the newly-elected educator plans to create what he calls "innovative schools" in villages where many underprivileged families reside.
"Some parents feel sorry since they are not rich enough to send their children to elite schools. To help these parents, I will intensively invest and support regular elementary and secondary schools in their districts and make them into innovative schools," Kwak said.
Conflicts looming large
At the same time, the election of another progressive educator Kim Sang-gon, 61, to the superintendent post of Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education means a clash looming large with the Lee administration.
Kim has defied the education ministry's order to discipline progressive teachers accused of staging an illegal rally. He also issued statements against the government's education policies.
Both Kwak and Kim criticize Lee administration's education policy favoring a smaller number of children from privileged families, standing firm against the government on several controversial education issues.
First of all, they oppose the nation-wide standardized exam, which was re-introduced under Lee's government to compare education competitiveness and boost competition among schools. A number of KTU teachers were fired as they boycotted the exam, claiming that the standardized test would burden children with unnecessary preparation for such competition.
As a practical decision-maker with authority to punish teachers, they basically disagree with the government about the dismissal of 134 unionized teachers, who are suspected of having been involved in political activities by paying dues regularly to the Democratic Labor Party.
Although the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to request the top educators to fire the teachers, Kwak seems unlikely to carry out the decision as he labeled the dismissal of the teachers as "violent and oppressive" by the education authorities.
Kim also said that he will decide after whether they really violated the Civil Service Law banning them from becoming members of a particular political party.
In addition, they are against the disclosure of the names of the teachers who belong to the KTU, which most governing Grand National Party lawmakers are supporting.
Kwak, a law professor at Korea National Open University, gained 34.3 percent of the voters, defeating his rival Lee Won-hee who obtained 33.2 percent in a neck-and-neck competition. He once served as a presidential advisor to the Roh Moo-hyun government and was a visiting professor at British Columbia University in Canada and the University of Washington in the United States.
He is also on an advisory council of jurists of the Asia-Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions.
Kim, a former professor at Hanshin University, forayed into officialdom in April last year after he was elected in a by-election as the top educator for Gyeonggi Province.
Gyeonggi is the nation's largest educational administrational unit with roughly 1.86 million students and 80,000 teachers at 2,060 schools.
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