By Na Jeong-ju, Yun Suh-young
A sudden and drastic budget cut will force more than 800 foreign English teachers out of their jobs at schools in Gyeonggi Province in the second half of the year.
The Gyeonggi Provincial Council passed a supplementary budget bill submitted by the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education (GPOE) Tuesday, but excluded the 15.6 billion won needed to extend the contracts of foreign English teachers.
Officials from the council said that they cut the budget as part of long-term plans to eventually reduce the number of foreign teachers and replace them with Koreans.
With the budget cut, about 819 teachers will have to find new jobs in the coming months, officials said.
Out of the 1,119 foreign English teachers in elementary, middle and high schools who receive their salary from the education office, 300 have already been laid off.
The budget cut is drawing criticism even from GPOE officials.
“The situation is ridiculous. It’s not even a half reduction or one-third reduction, but a total reduction. We feel very uncomfortable with the decision right now,” said an official from the office. “The budget should not have been taken away. If we don’t receive this, we’re not even getting what we should be getting. This has never happened before.”
The contract for foreign English teachers in local schools is valid for one year. Those whose contract expires in October, November and December will not be able to renew them. Contracts for at least 196 teachers are to expire during those three months.
However, the remaining 623 teachers whose contracts are just underway are the ones facing immediate trouble because they may not be able to receive their salaries starting next month.
“We’ll try to pay them as much as we can even if we have to use our own budget allocated for schools. We may be able to pay them for at least four to five months, but again, this is not finalized. We will try not to let go the 623 remaining teachers if possible,” the official said.
The unstable job status of foreign teachers is not just an issue in Gyeonggi Province.
An official of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said the recruitment of native speakers has helped improve the language skills of Korean teachers and enhance the quality of lessons for students.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that schools will hire more native speakers.
Seoul educators are also hinting that schools will eventually hire a smaller number of native English teachers as Koreans will replace them.
“One of the reasons schools have native teachers is to give Korean teachers opportunities to learn from them so that they can provide better English lessons to students,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “However, as Korean teachers’ language skills are getting better, there will be less need for native speakers at schools. That’s the reality.”
Currently, there are some 1,600 foreign teachers in public and private schools in Seoul. Some 1,240 teachers were hired by the educational authorities, while the rest are employed by some private schools or district offices in affluent neighborhoods.
This year, Seoul Metropolitan Government set aside a total of 56 billion won ($53 million) to cover the salaries and benefits for 1,240 teachers, according to the official.
Officials from the education ministry said the quality of language lessons has improved significantly in schools nationwide since municipal governments began hiring native speakers.
But the cost of maintaining the system at the current level is too big, and it’s time to seek alternative ways to provide good lessons in a “more efficient” way, they said.
“It’s likely that the country’s spending on native speakers will decrease steadily in the coming years as Korean teachers become more competent. That means there will be less job opportunities for foreign teachers here,” a ministry official said, declining to be named.
“I don’t send my daughter to private academies so the only opportunity she can be exposed to real English is at school. Otherwise, she’ll have to go to a private academy which is very expensive,” said Oh Eun-ju, a parent of a student attending Kwangju Kwangmung Elementary School. “I’m sure many other parents will also oppose this decision.”
The high-priced private education fees seemed to be the common dilemma for parents with older children.
“I’m against the budget cut decision as well. If a native speaker teaches English at school, students won’t have to go to private academies. High school students, in particular, don’t go to private institutes just to improve their speaking because they have lots of other things to study. But if they can get the education in school, that’s great. The decision is very troubling for parents like us,” said Cha Suk-hee, a parent of a student attending Baekseok High School.