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Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2006

Danger of education divide


During its five-year rule, the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has completed a number of structural reforms, including the privatization of the postal service. To that extent, the administration deserves high praise.

From the public's perspective, some of the reforms are good, but not all. Among the bad ones is the cutback in expenditures from national coffers for compulsory education in exchange for the transfer of some tax-revenue sources (as part of the national income tax) to local governments (as part of the local residential tax).

The government had originally planned to abolish those expenditures, but amid strong resistance from the education ministry, it reduced the national funding share for teachers' salaries from one-half to one-third. The difference was made up by shifting some tax revenue sources to local governments.

On the other hand, recently announced 2006 government guidelines for economic and fiscal management call for abolishing tax-money allocations from the central government to local governments. Therefore, national expenditures for compulsory education appear set to be abolished altogether eventually.

Japanese education policy traditionally has been based on the idea of eliminating regional differences in compulsory education and pursuing balanced development of national land. This policy enabled Japan to achieve fast postwar reconstruction from 1945 to 1955, stage amazing economic growth from 1958 to 1973, overcome problems from the 1973 global oil crisis, and dominate the global electronics market in subsequent years by developing an array of electronic devices and high-tech products.

At the National People's Congress last March, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced a new national policy of establishing harmony between urban and rural areas, between coastal and inland regions, between manufacturing and agriculture, between man and nature, and between the development of China and that of the world (especially Asia).

For China, Japan, once the role model for high economic growth, apparently has now become a good example of a harmonious society, as China emphasizes removing the economic and educational gaps between urban and rural areas.

Ironically, though, Koizumi's reform drive has undermined Japanese-style harmony developed in the postwar years. Social divides have become a serious issue in various contexts, contradicting the so-called pursuit of harmony.

Opinion is divided on what the central government should and should not do. Very few would argue that compulsory education should be excluded from the government's responsibilities.

The government has long established a basic framework for compulsory education and made substantial financial contributions, including paying one-half of teachers' salaries at public schools. Meanwhile, local governments have paid most of the cost of establishing and managing public schools.

At issue is how far the government should remain involved in compulsory education. So far, the government has subsidized local governments specifically to eliminate regional education gaps. But these subsidies have been criticized for allowing the central government to exert too much control over compulsory education.

For example, disputes have arisen over education ministry directives on raising the national flag and singing the national anthem "Kimigayo" at school ceremonies and over the ministry's method of screening school textbooks.

Local governments should be given more opportunity and power to implement their own initiatives. But this will require substantial fiscal expenditures that could create educational gaps between rich and poor communities -- a possibility that cannot be ignored.

All children, regardless of family and regional backgrounds, must be given the educational opportunities necessary to nurture their abilities to enjoy a rich social and occupational life in the future. Preventing the waste of human resources in this way will also contribute to the revitalization and the sustainable development of the economy.

The government should guarantee basic standards of education. It should publicize examples of successful reform in compulsory education at the local level. While taking into account cost-effectiveness, the government should implement the budgetary measures necessary to spread such reform across the nation.

Amid tight finances these days, my proposal may seem like a dream. But education must be part of a long-range plan for the nation. Improving the scholastic levels of 18-year-olds so that they will develop sound attitudes as citizens are essential for sustaining the further development of society.

Children born in the low-income Hokkaido and Okinawa prefectures are not naturally less gifted than those born in high-income metropolitan Tokyo, Aichi and the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe regions. Yet, if the central government continues to push a policy of eventually abolishing its expenditures for compulsory education in exchange for a shift of tax-revenue sources to local governments, we will face a dire situation in which place of birth will determine the quality of education one receives. That would lead to a great national loss.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.


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