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Child care crisis looms as funding standoff persists

Government, education offices dig their heels deeper in strife over childcare funding program

The Education Ministry stepped up its offensive against local education superintendents this week, with the government and regional offices locking horns over who is responsible for funding the “Nuri” child care and education subsidy program.

“Some education offices’ refusal to allocate a budget for the Nuri program infringes on children’s right to be educated. Superintendents should immediately take measures to stop the ‘child care’ crisis, and be mindful that they are responsible for the situation that ensues upon their failure to do so,” the ministry said Sunday.

Nuri, one of President Park Geun-hye’s key election pledges during her 2012 campaign, provides financial coverage for kindergarten and day care tuition fees for all children aged 3-5.

But the multi-trillion won project had sparked complaints from local education chiefs that the government has unfairly placed a financial burden on them.

Children have lunch Monday at a kindergarten in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
Children have lunch Monday at a kindergarten in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

As of Monday, six education offices ― Seoul, Gwangju, North Jeolla Province, South Jeolla Province, Gangwon, Sejong and Gyeonggi Province ― have yet to pledge full financial coverage of the subsidy program.

Gyeonggi’s provincial assembly failed to reach an agreement on the Nuri program and commenced the fiscal year on a provisional budget, after a violent physical altercation erupted on Dec. 31 over its removal of Nuri from the 2016 budget.

The ruling Saenuri Party accused on Monday the education offices, Gyeonggi council and the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea of conducting a political scheme.

“If (education offices) allow the child care crisis become a reality, they are legally responsible for violating the law,” said Rep. Kim Jung-hoon, head of the Saenuri Party policy committee.

The education chiefs’ association of Korea had already requested an audience with the president, vowing to take all measures to see that the government accepts their demands to fully fund the Nuri program for this year, which they expect would cost about 4 trillion won ($3.37 billion).

“A face-to-face talk with the president is our last resort. If she refuses, there is nothing more we can do,” said Jang Huy-gook, superintendent of the Gwangju Metropolitan Office of Education who doubles as the head of the association.

“If the government pursues legal actions against us (for not allocating the Nuri budgets), then we would take legal measures as well,” he said, referring to last month’s announcement by the Policy Coordinating Minister Choo Kyung-ho that the government would take “every possible disciplinary measure” to ensure that the local education offices pick up the check for Nuri.

The government said the money for the Nuri program should come from the 41.2 trillion won budget already allocated for the country’s 17 city and provincial education offices in 2016, marking a 1.8 trillion won increase from the year before. Choo also stressed that a plan to inject an additional 300 billion won was passed by the National Assembly.

But Jang claimed the 1.8 trillion won budget increase is “not even enough to cover the increase in payroll” of education workers.

“We (the superintendents) already promised to pay for kindergarten, but at least cover the costs for the child care centers,” he said, in a press conference jointly attended by superintendents of six offices that have allocated zero or partial budgets for the Nuri program.

Meanwhile, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is locked in a standstill of its own with its city council, which has refused to even shoulder the kindergarten budgets. The SMOE is planning to request for a reconsideration of the council’s decision within this week.

Among the thorny issues surrounding the Nuri program is the ambiguous law on the regional education budget, which funds the 17 education offices.

The government and education offices are split on what qualifies as an “education facility,” which the cited clause does not specify. Korean law stipulates that the budget covers partial or entire expenses for all educational facilities installed or operated by a regional government.

The government categorizes kindergartens as education facilities that are under the guidance of the Education Ministry, but child care facilities, such as day care centers, are under supervision of the Welfare Ministry.

The Education Ministry claimed that as many of the functions and target age group of kindergartens ― generally for children aged 3-5 ― and child care centers ― for ages 0-5 ― overlap, the education offices should cover costs for both. The education superintendents have rejected the notion.

Facing controversy, the government even passed an ordinance for the education budget law last year that mandated the respective education offices to pay for the entire Nuri program.

In spite of the law revision, education offices pointed out that the cited clause ― which supersedes the ordinance ― clearly states that they are only required to cover costs for the educational facilities.

The costs for child care centers alone is expected to reach 2.1 trillion won, according to the estimates by the education chiefs’ association.

“What the Education Ministry is asking of us is illegal, because (covering child care expenses) is the responsibility the Welfare Ministry and not ours,” said Gangwon Education Superintendent Min Byung-hee, adding that his office’s financial problems makes it impossible to shoulder the costs of Nuri.

A similar standoff last year over the Nuri program was stitched up with a makeshift solution of a 506 billion won emergency subsidy by the government and education offices issuing bonds.

But the education superintendents said a resounding no to repeating the procedure, claiming that they are already swimming in debt.

According to data provided by Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo of the minor opposition Justice Party, the collective debt of the education offices in 2015 was 10.8 trillion won, skyrocketing from 2.1 trillion won in 2011.

Jang Man-chae, the education chief for South Jeolla Province, said the money for the Nuri program would eventually have to come from the budget originally intended for student welfare and maintenance of school facilities.

Seoul Education Chief Cho Hi-yeon called for a “grand compromise” by both ruling and opposition parties to find a solution on the Nuri issue.

“Strictly speaking, Seoul alone could cover about two to three months of the Nuri program. But in case of places like Gyeonggi Province, even the ministry admits that they are short on funds. I hope we can find a middle ground on the issue,” he told reporters.

By Yoon Min-sik