Abe turns back clock on education

The Diet has started deliberations on a bill to revise the board of education system, which would enable local government heads to almost directly intervene in education at local schools. This would destroy the neutrality of school education from political influence.

Both ruling and opposition lawmakers should remember that the board of education system was introduced after World War II to prevent school education from being used as a political tool — as before and during the war when children were instilled with the then regime’s ethnocentric and militarist doctrine. The bill should be scrapped, and lawmakers should instead consider how to make boards of education function better under the current system when responding to various problems at school such as bullying.

Currently a board of education — set up both at prefectural and municipal levels — in principle consists of five members appointed by the local government head with the consent of the local assembly. Board members then select from among themselves their chief as well as the head of the board’s secretariat, who will serve under the board’s authority.

Under the proposed revision, the positions of the education board chief and the head of its secretariat would be combined into the new position of education chief. The local government head would directly appoint and dismiss the education chief, thereby effectively turning the education chief into a subordinate of the local government head. The education chief would have a three-year tenure, while members of the education board would serve only on a part-time basis.

Such matters as selection of textbooks used at public schools as well as appointment and transfer of teachers would continue to be under the jurisdiction of the local board of education. But the local government head would be able to influence the board’s decisions through the “comprehensive education council,” which would be newly set up in each municipality and prefecture and composed of the local government head, the education chief and members of the education board.

The council would normally deal with such urgent matters as bullying at schools, as well as budget-related issues including integration or abolition of schools. But since the council would also discuss “education suitable to a local situation,” the local government head would be able to intervene in the content of education provided at local schools. If the council decides at the initiative of the local government head to teach children to have respect for tradition and patriotism, the board of education would be bound by the council’s will in selecting textbooks. This is because, according to the bill, the members of the council must respect its decisions.

It’s possible that the local government head would use the council as a means of carrying out his political agenda designed to attract voters. The board of education could be turned into an organ that would only rubber-stamp decisions by the council — in which case an argument for abolishing the board of education itself might gain momentum.

The board of education system was originally designed to prevent direct involvement in education by the local government head, who holds strong powers over local affairs including budgetary matters. If the bill is enacted as is, it would be tantamount to rejecting the board of education system.

Talk of revising the system was triggered by the 2011 suicide of a junior high school student in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, who had been bullied by his classmates. In that tragedy, the local education board came under fire for failing to take proper action. The government should first consider how to strengthen the function of boards of education, rather than weakening them as the bill seeks to do.

Behind the legislation is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wish to increase the government’s involvement in school education by reversing some features of postwar education reform. His effort to politicize education must be stopped.