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Local gov’t, private school clash

North Jeolla wants to strip its autonomous status, parents furious
June 24,2019
The North Jeolla government’s plan to strip an autonomous private high school of its autonomous status is causing a storm of controversy.

The North Jeolla Education Office announced Thursday that it intends to revoke Sangsan High School in Jeonju’s status as an autonomous private high school. It said Sangsan scored 79.61 out of 100, just a hair below the passing score of 80, in its assessment of whether the school should be able to keep its status as an autonomous private high school.

The North Jeolla Education Office plans to submit a request to the Education Ministry for approval to revoke Sangsan High School’s autonomous status in mid-July. After the request is submitted, the Education Ministry will have 50 days to give an answer.

Autonomous high schools maintain financial independence from the government and in return are granted more freedom in picking students, creating their curriculum and charging tuition. They are also allowed to offer diverse and specialized educational programs, with more autonomy given to school management.

Parents of students who attend autonomous private high schools did not stand by after hearing the news. Around a thousand parents staged a rally in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education in central Seoul on Thursday to express their opposition to the government’s plan to change autonomous private high schools into regular high schools. Parents criticized the policy as restricting their right to choose their child’s education.

The fate of the schools lies in the hands of Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae. There are 23 other autonomous private high schools in the country also waiting for their fates, which will be revealed in a series of announcements throughout July.

The progressive Moon Jae-in administration has been pushing to scrap autonomous private high schools across the nation. It hopes to achieve what it describes as equal standing for all students in their education and competition.

Originally, when an autonomous private high school’s status was revoked, superintendents of schools and the education minister had to consult with one another to make the decision. Yet the revision of the enforcement decree of the education act in 2014 changed the requirement to an agreement between the two officials instead of a consultation. The changes in the act toughened the procedure for deciding whether to revoke a school’s autonomous status.

The changes to the enforcement decree were made after liberal superintendents of schools pushed for the abolition of autonomous private high schools when the assessment of these schools were implemented for the first time in 2014, before the act was revised.

The movement to scrap the status of autonomous private high schools started in 2014. At the time, six high schools in Seoul had their autonomous status revoked by the city’s education superintendent, Cho Hee-yeon. The Ministry of Education ordered the education office to overturn this decision, but it was ignored. The Education Ministry in turn used its authority to override the education office’s choice. Cho took the case to the Supreme Court.

In July 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the Seoul education office’s decision to revoke the autonomous status of high schools without the Education Ministry’s approval was illegal and an abuse of discretionary authority.

The court said that both the local education office and the Ministry of Education needed to agree on the decision to revoke a school’s status. Previously, the decision did not need to be “agreed upon” by both organizations but simply had to be “discussed.”

The Education Ministry’s guideline on the assessment requires that high schools receive a score of at least 70 to maintain their autonomous status. Sangsan pointed out that the North Jeolla Education Office added an additional 10 points to this guideline, making it more difficult for schools in the province to pass.

“A criteria with an additional 10 points than other areas is not fair,” said Park Sam-ok, the principal of Sangsan High School. “If the final ruling leads to revoking [the school’s autonomous status], I will submit administrative litigation.”

An official of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) said that schools should not be worried that the policy is a ploy to shut down their schools.

“[Our goal is to] only get rid of autonomous private high schools which are unable to do their jobs,” a senior official of the DP told the JoongAng Ilbo on Friday. “[President Moon Jae-in], in his presidential campaign, insisted on a policy of keeping the autonomous private high schools that students from across the country can apply to, like Sangsan High School.”

BY YUN SUK-MAN, JUNG MYUNG-SUK [jung.myungsuk@joongang.co.kr]