The reality of a government grant program for elementary, middle and high school education, exposed as a result of a 10-month inspection by the top audit agency, is extremely deplorable. The Board of Audit and Inspection disclosed the results of its inspection into the program on Thursday.
Grants to the nation's 17 offices of education and schools in their districts were so excessive that much of them were wasted, for example, on an array of cash welfare benefits and interest-free loans to educational personnel. Few would have expected education offices and schools to squander their grants to this extent. They were in another world while the government was striving to tighten its belt.
Last year, 63.2 trillion won ($47.7 billion), which is 20.79 percent of the internal revenue collected for the main budget, was paid out in educational grants. This amount itself was huge, and yet according to related law the central government allocated 15.7 trillion won more in additional grants that arose from the revised supplementary budget and budget surplus, as well as unspent budget carried over.
Overflowing funding led to extravagance and waste in the educational field. Metropolitan and provincial offices of education were busy figuring out expenditure items to use the grants.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is said to have handed out a total of 96 billion won in "school entrance support money" for freshmen at elementary, middle and high schools in the capital.
The Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education distributed a total of 166.4 billion won -- 50,000 won per student -- to students under the pretext of "recovering psychological emotion" from the prolonged pandemic.
The Gangwon Provincial Office of Education purchased 600 smart devices to issue to vice principals, but has kept 210 of them in a warehouse. The office allocated 16.8 billion won in expenses for replacement of desks and chairs, though just 3.5 billion won was needed. The reason it cited was simply that it could afford to.
Several offices of education used grants to offer interest-free loans to teachers and educational public officials.
The budget for the "Green Smart School" project launched under the previous Moon Jae-in administration was found to have been little used. The project is a plan to turn about 2,800 decrepit school buildings across the country into high-tech educational facilities at a cost of 18 trillion won over five years, starting in 2021. However, a mere 4.4 percent, or about 10 billion won, out of the first-year budget of 230 billion won was spent. And yet the planned second-year budget of 1.1 trillion won was fully allocated as part of education grants.
The evils of educational grants were ascribable to a related law requiring 20.79 percent of internal tax revenue to be set aside automatically and unconditionally for elementary, middle and high school education. In 1971, when the grant system was enforced, class sizes were 70 to 80 students, but they have been reduced sharply to about 25. On the other hand, the national budget has gotten incomparably bigger than 50 years ago. The grants increased exponentially because the educational grant law has remained unchanged.
If offices of education have too much money to burn, it would be sensible to divert a surplus of their grants to cash-strapped universities or to rather spend it on the socially disadvantaged class and those in welfare blind spots. But superintendents of educational offices and teachers' groups defend their vested interests impregnably.
Offices of education see the grants keep piling up. Dormant grant funds available to offices of education across the country because they failed to use them up totaled 22.14 trillion won as of late last year. The current per-student grant is 8.91 million won, and the state auditor estimates that will expand 11-fold to 97.81 million won in 2070. This is because the nation's student population is expected to more than halve, while educational grants are expected to increase about 4.5-fold as the economy keeps growing.
More than half a century has passed since the system linking educational grants to internal revenue unconditionally was introduced. It is urgent to mend the linkage. Lawmakers have a heavy responsibility. They must work together to normalize an abnormal system.