Superintendents of education for 17 cities and provinces will be elected on the June 1 local elections. A superintendent of education is the head of kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school education, who has the authority to make decisions on the overall education system, including abolition of private high schools or expansion of innovative schools. Superintendents of education also make the final decision on the number of exams conducted annually, school start time, and school lunch menu. They are called “little president of education” as their impact on the education sector is powerful than that of the education minister.
With the election only three weeks away, however, candidates from different political blocs are only busy talking about fielding a single candidate instead of promoting their policies. There are so many pending issues superintendents of education should address, including declining academic ability and the burden of private education expenses worsened by the pandemic, and the collective protest of teachers against the high school credit system, which will be implemented from next year. In the case of Seoul, however, three candidates from the center and conservative camps continued to negotiate over how to unify candidacy until Wednesday, one day before the registration of candidates. Three candidates from the progressive camp, including the current superintendent of education for Seoul, Cho Hee-yeon, are also discussing whether to field a single candidate or not. As for Gyeonggi Province, discussions on education policies are nowhere to be seen as candidates from the progressive camps are busy negotiating over merger of candidacies.
The reason why candidates are only interested in merging candidacies is because it could make or break the election result due to voters’ indifference. When the election for superintendent of education was held separately, voter turnout was only around 10-20 percent. Voter turnout has increased since 2010, when it began to be held together with the local elections, but only four out of 10 voters said they cast their vote knowing the names and policies of candidates. It means most of the voters cast their vote based on the candidates’ political party. In the 2014 and 2018 superintendent of education elections in Seoul, candidates from the conservative camps won the majority of the votes, but lost to Cho Hee-yeon, the single candidate from the progressive camp, because they did not merge candidacies.
Many superintendents were found to have given kickbacks in the process of merging candidacies or illegally appointed someone after election after the direct election of superintendents of education was introduced in 2007 under the pretext of realizing autonomy in education. Political neutrality of education is a value stipulated in the Constitution, but there are continuing controversies surrounding elementary, middle and high school education being inclined toward either left or right, depending on the political orientation of the superintendent of education. It is necessary to reconsider whether the current form of superintendent of education election should be left as it is when it produces corrupt superintendents of education and turns education into a political scene by wasting taxpayers’ money.