Bribery scandals mar education autonomy
By Na Jeong-ju
The prosecution’s arrest Wednesday of a top educator in South Jeolla Province for bribery allegations has triggered calls to abolish the direct election system for regional education chiefs, introduced in 2007.
Chang Man-chae, liberal superintendent of the South Jeolla Province Office of Education, was put behind bars at a detention center in Suncheon for taking some 100 billion won in bribes. If he is indicted, his duty as education chief will be suspended automatically.
Chang’s case adds concerns about the ethical qualifications of education chiefs following a separate case involving Seoul’s top educator Kwak No-hyun. Kwak, also a liberal, is now on trial on charges of bribing a rival candidate in return for his withdrawal from the election for the post. Chang and Kwak are two of 17 regional education chiefs elected in June 2010.
The bribery cases have drawn keen attention from the education sector amid rows between the government and liberal-controlled regional education offices over school-related policies. Chang and Kwak had been in conflict with the education ministry over a series of reform measures, such as the ordinance on enhancing students’ human rights and the prohibition of corporal punishment.
The rift represents an escalating ideological conflict between educational policymakers with different political backgrounds. And that’s why the ministry believes the root of the problem is the direct election system.
Some ministry officials are calling for a revision of laws to abolish elections for regional education chiefs and make the president or education minister appoint them.
“The regional chiefs have authority over the employment of some 400,000 teaching staff nationwide and an annual education budget of more than 40 trillion won. However, most voters are not interested in the elections,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “As most candidates are chosen by political parties, voters tend to prioritize their party affiliation when casting ballots.”
According to the prosecution, Chang misused funds while working as president of Sunchon National University from 2006 to 2010.
The ministry’s audit of the university showed that it violated accounting rules to misuse donations under Chang. He received tens of millions of won in job-related expenses from the school but didn’t present any receipts to show how the money was spent.
After being elected as regional education chief, he allegedly used credit cards issued by his “friends.” With these cards, Chang spent some 60 million won. The prosecution suspects it was a form of bribery.