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(News Focus) Legal setbacks undermine gov't's push to scrap elite high schools

All News 17:27 May 17, 2021

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, May 17 (Yonhap) -- The government's push to scrap three types of elite high schools in 2025 has come under greater scrutiny following a series of court rulings in favor of keeping the institutions intact.

The latest development came Friday when the Seoul Administrative Court ruled that it was illegal for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to cancel the licenses of two "autonomous private high schools" in 2019, in its third ruling on elite schools.

This photo shows Choong Ang High School in central Seoul on May 14, 2021, the same day a court ruled in favor of the school keeping its status as an autonomous private high school in a case against the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. (Yonhap)

There are more than 40 of these elite schools in the country, and 10 of them had their licenses revoked by the education authorities following a periodical performance review in 2019.

The authorities claimed that the schools failed the performance test, but the schools countered that they had not been informed of changes to the assessment criteria.

"The court's ruling confirmed again that it was wrong for the education authorities to use the performance review only as a means to abolish autonomous private high schools," an association of principals of such schools in Seoul said in March following the court's second ruling on elite schools.

"We autonomous private high schools will devote ourselves to our nation's public high school education by increasing diversity in educational programs and the educational environment, while maintaining our wholesome operational independence and autonomy," it said at the time.

This photo shows Shinil High School in northern Seoul on March 23, 2021, the same day a court ruled in favor of the school keeping its status as an autonomous private high school in a case against the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. (Yonhap)

These elite schools were first introduced as a pilot program in 2002 and then formally adopted and expanded under the Lee Myung-bak government in 2010. The conservative administration gave the schools greater autonomy than general high schools in decisions on admissions, financing and curricula, with the intention of salvaging a "crumbling" public education system.

As a result, autonomous private high schools were allowed to charge up to three times higher tuition fees than general schools and many of them focused on teaching Korean, English and math, which are core subjects for college entrance exams.

The schools were soon accused of creating a "stratified" education system that increased the learning gaps between different social groups.

To remove the inequality, President Moon Jae-in ran his 2017 presidential election campaign on a promise to convert all autonomous private, foreign language and international high schools into general high schools.

And in 2019, the government revised an enforcement ordinance of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to enable the transition while also announcing plans to introduce a credit system to ensure all high school students have greater freedom to choose their subjects. Both measures are set to take effect in 2025.

Critics have argued that abolition of the elite schools will achieve nothing unless it is accompanied by steps to raise the quality of education at general high schools. In fact, more parents are likely to send their children to schools in Gangnam, an affluent neighborhood of Seoul known also for its cut-throat education, they said.

This photo shows Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae in Seoul speaking on May 17, 2021, at a meeting with experts on COVID-19 measures at schools. (Yonhap)

But the Ministry of Education and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education have not backed down from their plan, saying the recent legal disputes are a matter of procedure, not substance.

"It was simply a ruling on the process leading up to the (licenses') cancellation, not a judgment that the policy to reform the high school system in 2025 is illegal," Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said during a parliamentary hearing in February, shortly after the court issued its first ruling on elite schools.

Of the 10 schools whose licenses were revoked, the courts have so far ruled in favor of keeping the status of seven, with three still pending.

The verdicts on the remaining three are due to be out on May 28 and June 17. The results are widely expected to be the same, given the identical nature of the cases and the court's justification for its decisions so far -- namely, that it was illegal for the education office to announce new assessment rules in 2018 and then apply them retroactively to the entire evaluation period from 2014-2019.

The Seoul education office said Friday it will appeal the court's latest decision despite criticism it is wasting money and effort. The office took the same position after the two previous rulings, citing the importance of proving that its decisions to cancel the licenses were justified.

All eyes are now on the next phase of the legal battle.

Last year, a group of schools filed a petition with the Constitutional Court claiming that the government's planned abolition of the institutions was unconstitutional.

Depending on the Court's decision, which isn't expected until next year, the fate of the elite schools could take a new turn.

hague@yna.co.kr
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