The mess of education superintendent races

Candidates running in the June 1 local elections should have finished registering by Friday. The race for education superintendent positions are expected to be the most muddled. Contestants entirely rely on ideological reasoning with few distinctive platforms. Those vying in Seoul and capital jurisdictions are busy courting rivals to better their chances. They hardly act to represent students.

Educational superintendents have said over appointments and budgets in school districts. Under them are 570,000 teachers and staff. The 17 city and provisional education offices have 82 trillion won ($ 64 billion) in funding, 16 percent of the government budget of 513 trillion won as of 2020. In local governments, mayors and district heads are all elected by residents. But educational superintendents command authority over appointments and budgets.

But election progress is most murky with the education chiefs. Little is known about who is running on what platform. In a survey by the National Election Commission in 2018 after last local elections, the ratio of indifference to the vote was 56.4 percent with education chiefs, compared to 27.7 percent for mayor or governor races. In the 2008 vote for Seoul education superintendent, the turnout was 15.4 percent.

Although each may claim political neutrality, “it is the most vulgar form of election with all kinds of foul play,” according to Park Sun-young, a running candidate for Seoul education chief. Candidates are busy showing off how they are related to a certain party or President Yoon Suk-yeol or former Liberal President Moon Jae-in.

Yet the election cost is huge. In local elections in 2018, candidates for education superintendent spent 1.1 billion won on average campaigning, overwhelming 762 million won spent on average by a mayoral or gubernatorial candidate. Even defeated candidates for education chief in Gyeonggi Province spent 3.8 billion won. Such spending can breed corruption. Former Seoul superintendent Kwak No-hyun was sentenced to one year in prison for bribing another candidate with 200 million won to bow out of the race and muster vote behind him. Former chief of Incheon Lee Cheong-yeon was sentenced to six years for pocketing 400 million won to pay off his debt while campaigning. As many as 20 superintendents were tried for corruption since direct voting began in 2007.

The education superintendent system should not be left as it is. In Britain, Germany and Japan, education superintendents are appointed by the local government heads or education commissions. In the US, 14 states elect superintendents, with eight nominated by the political parties. In six other states, candidates represent their parties.


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