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Education chief seeks to ‘normalize’ elite schools

June 21,2017
Seoul’s education chief, Cho Hee-yeon, dropped a bomb Tuesday in a press briefing when he expressed his will to “normalize” foreign language and autonomous private high schools in the capital by denying the reauthorization of their special status.

By law, the special-purpose high schools, which are considered highly elite institutes in Korea, go through an evaluation process every five years by a regional education office, which then decides whether to reassign the coveted status. The Ministry of Education has the final call as to whether to accept that decision.

President Moon Jae-in had vowed during election season to turn all foreign language and special purpose high schools across the country into regular high schools, a strong sign that the ministry would allow any regional efforts that follow his tune.

Cho’s statement came a week after his Gyeonggi counterpart, Superintendent Lee Jae-jung of the Gyeonggi Office of Education, said foreign language and autonomous private high schools in his province will lose their special status starting from 2020, while calling on the abolishment of policies that “stratify and rank schools.”

Cho’s stance on the issue was much awaited. The liberal superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, however, did not mention a specific guideline, as Lee did.

“Foreign language and autonomous private high schools [in Seoul] should be re-designated as regular high schools,” Cho expressed in a press release handed out to reporters Tuesday, “while schools for the gifted as well as science, arts and physical education high schools should remain as special-purpose institutes.”

Cho urged tight scrutiny of the latter group of schools to check whether they operate in accordance with their founding purpose. Cho also called on the Moon administration to transfer the authority to grant or revoke the special-purpose status to regional education offices, which would allow him to speed through the process.

When asked what he thought about his Gyeonggi counterpart’s plan to revoke the status of all foreign language and autonomous private high schools in Gyeonggi starting from 2022, Cho said he thought the Gyeonggi chief was “thinking lopsidedly,” which in the Korean context hints that Cho might not act as fast as the Gyeonggi chief.

A more specific announcement on the fate of Seoul’s elite schools could come as early as next Wednesday, when Cho’s office decides whether to allow one foreign language and three autonomous private high schools in the area to keep their status for another five years.

BY JEONG HYEON-JIN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]