School district superintendents are responsible for the overall performance of elementary, middle and high schools in their districts.
Their authority is powerful. They decide on issues related to school type, such as whether to shut down autonomous private high schools or increase public schools that emphasize creative curricula. They have the authority to propose bylaws such as one to restrict late-night private lessons at commercial education facilities. They have the final say over the weighting of written tests and performance assessments and school start times.
They have personnel authority of over about 570,000 teachers and staff members of education offices across the country. The country has 17 metropolitan and provincial education offices. Superintendents who head the offices managed budgets totaling as much as 82 trillion won ($64.6 billion) in 2020. The figure amounts to 16 percent of the 513 trillion won budget for the central government.
The election to fill the 17 important education positions is eight days away. It is held on the same day as the June 1 local elections for local government chiefs such as mayors and governors.
However, voter interest in the election for education superintendents is very low, though they have a lot of power.
In an opinion poll conducted by three television networks on May 14 and 15, as much as 70 percent of respondents in Seoul and its surrounding areas in Gyeonggi Province replied that there are no superintendent candidates they support, or that they are undecided.
Most people go to the polls without knowing who is running for school district superintendent, let alone their election pledges.
Candidates for local government chiefs and local council members run as nominees of their affiliated political parties, so voters can judge them by the yardstick of party affiliation. But school district superintendents are not nominated by parties.
Parties cannot nominate candidates for education superintendents on the justification that education should be neutral to politics.
This is why candidates crowd constituencies, and an election win depends greatly on whether they succeed in unifying their candidacies.
In the previous two elections in 2014 and 2018 for Seoul education superintendent, Cho Hee-yeon, a unified candidate from the liberal camp, carried the day thanks to the failure of several candidates on the conservative bloc to unify their candidacies, even though they won a combined majority of votes.
The situation this time looks similar. It is questionable whether such an election has any meaning.
There are some opinions that the way of filling the posts of education superintendents should be changed to have candidates be running mates of local government chiefs or by appointment. If a candidate for a local government chief wins the election, his or her running mate becomes the education superintendent. Or, education superintendents can be appointed by the president or local government chiefs.
According to the National Election Commission, in the election for 373 members of Seoul district councils, 107 candidates secured wins because they are uncontested. The figure amounts to about a third of Seoul district councilors and also as many as 13 times that for the 2018 local elections.
In Seoul, voter sentiment took a favorable turn for the People Power Party after the presidential elections. The Democratic Party of Korea gave up nominations for some councils this time as a result.
Nationwide, 387 members of city and district councils including proportional representatives are uncontested. What is the point of holding elections of this kind?
Few voters know who the candidates are. Voters cast ballots for candidates nominated by parties whom they prefer. They pay little attention to candidates’ policy promises and personalities.
Shortly after the local elections, members of the National Assembly must begin debates on the reform of election systems for superintendents and district council members.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org