Monday, March 19, 2012

Munhwa Ilbo: There's no such thing as a free lunch

On March 13, the Munhwa Ilbo painted a dark picture of the problems caused by Seoul's free lunch program:
Four months of free lunches ... with no budget native speaking teachers done away with
Leveled classes decreased... can't repair buildings... devastated places of education

"Classes where children are divided by level have been entirely reduced, and we are almost unable to use native speaking English teachers as well. The free lunch is a complete comedy, a comedy." (Seoul A Middle School Principal)

"Giving kids free food is also good, but but isn't it a problem if the building can't be repaired? It's like a spooky old house..." (Seoul B Middle School student)

The implementation of an expanded free lunch program pushed by the Democratic United Party and Seoul Education Superintendent Gwak No-hyeon last August is boomeranging and 'devastating places of education.'

In forming the budget for the expansion of free lunches to grades 5 and 6 and middle school grade 1 from this new semester, pressure was put on SMOE and other governing bodies [District offices?], and currently budgets needed by schools have been reduced or even cut entirely.

March 13, middle school A in Seoul's Yeongdeungpo-gu. The school's principal said,
"From first semester this year, with the enforcement of the total free lunch, the budget for things like building maintenance has been significantly reduced." "Since classrooms and the auditorium look so poor because the paint is worn out and flaking off, I requested that it be fixed, but a civilian inspection group refused, telling me "(Compared to other schools), this is luxurious." [Literally, 'at the level of a Yangban']

The principal said, "20% of the free lunch budget is shouldered by the district office, but the district office has also halted the supporting budget for facilities making the situation more difficult."

Students' classes have also taken quite a hit from the free lunch regulations. In the case of English, many schools have had support for the cost of native speaking instructors suspended, and in fact schools where the employment contract ended had instructors withdrawn at the end of February.

Classes where children are divided by level for Korean, English and math have also been greatly reduced. Amid this, some schools have not received proper support for their budget and cannot even think of investing in building maintenance or sports facilities. It's being understood that there are also countless schools which have postponed buying medicine or doing science experiments.

On that day at B Middle School in Seoul's Yangcheon-gu, a student named Park met inside the school complained that, "As a matter of fact, students have a lot of complaints about the school building being so spooky." "[They complain about] English classes too, but right now the school does not sponsor volunteer or club activities, and it's not like it used to be."

Miss Kim, a first year student at C Middle School in Seoul's Songpa-gu, said, "Shortly after the school year started, the science teacher made clear beforehand that, 'Due to the lack of budget the practical classes will not be good.'" "We did not even get the gear needed to win in the spring sports competition, so the desire to participate is declining."
While quite a few bloggers and foreign English teachers have linked the native speaking teacher cuts with the free lunch program, this is the first time I've seen a newspaper take that point of view (and in the title at that). It's not too hard to see that the article is taking potshots at the Democratic United Party, which leads one to wonder how much the article is exaggerating things. The answer may be 'Not very much,' at least going by this announcement in my school's 'monthly news' announcement:
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education has decided to reduce many events at school in order to focus on class instruction and building an upright character. Accordingly, this school will also stop holding activities such as those related to science, English, reunification, certification, and debate contests and will focus on improving students' studying ability and fostering a positive attitude toward school life. We will try to make our school a peaceful place free from violence.
I suppose if the budget is going to be diverted to something, a free lunch program is better than another Jaebeol construction contract, but it still seems to me to be quite a waste to apply 'welfare' policies to those who don't need them, especially when it's argued (in articles like this one) that many people who don't need them would take advantage of such programs. A point along this line was made at this Royal Asiatic Society lecture last week titled "Competition Dilemma: Has Korean Competition Reached Its limit?" Of the impressive number of statistics based on surveys that were presented, one stood out: when asked whether they would cheat to get ahead, less than half of poor people said yes - but the figure was over 80% for rich people, which might suggest that building "an upright character" might work against them. For those at the top (and who want to remain there), the prospect of cuts to public education by a 'progressive' government seemingly blinded by its desire to create 'equality' via a welfare state must be both a welcome - and amusing - one.