Education minister Atsuko Toyama said Tuesday that her ministry may support moves to allow stock companies to run schools, marking a shift from its previous opposition toward the proposal.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry may consider the proposal if it is shown that the public nature, stability and consistency of education would be maintained under such a system, Toyama said.

Toyama said debate on the plan has to date only focused on the possible economic benefits of such a maneuver.

“I believe it is very important to revitalize education itself, and the point here is how to strike a balance between the economy and education,” she said.

The idea of granting stock companies access to the education sector was proposed as part of a deregulation drive initiated by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Last year, a government deregulation panel advocated the establishment of special deregulation zones throughout Japan. It said that regulations governing businesses should be relaxed in areas such as agriculture, retail sales, social welfare, medical services and education.

The suggestion that stock companies should be allowed to run hospitals and schools met with strong opposition from both the education ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

These ministries argued that commercialism is foreign to the management of such institutions.

The education ministry has eased its position, however, stating in December it would consider the proposal for postgraduate professional schools to be established in the future.

The government’s schedule dictates that municipalities should submit deregulation zone applications by Jan. 15.

After viewing these applications, the education ministry will consider the matter at hand from a wider perspective, including why such a move is necessary and which points must be considered in proceeding with the deregulation drive, Toyama said.

New term in Toyosato

OTSU, Shiga Pref. (Kyodo) About 270 students at Toyosato Elementary School in Shiga Prefecture attended on Tuesday the opening ceremony for the third trimester amid a raging dispute over the attempted demolition of historic school buildings.

The children arrived at the snow-covered school in groups and entered the gymnasium for the ceremony.

The ceremony had always been held in the school’s auditorium next to the art deco main building, both of which were built in 1937 and designed by American architect William Merrell Vories (1880-1964).

Toyosato authorities had planned to demolish the auditorium and the main building and replace them with new construction as the existing structures are not resistant to earthquakes.

After residents objected to the demolition, citing the buildings’ historic significance, the Otsu District Court issued an injunction last January against razing the auditorium, followed by another one in December for the main building.

The residents and town authorities are also in conflict regarding the school’s classes for the third trimester, with the former wanting classes to take place in the historic building and the latter advocating the use of a makeshift school building.

Some town office employees, assembly members and residents began moving school furniture and materials from the main building to the makeshift building on Sunday, amid protests from the opposing residents.

Principal Hitoshi Kitasaka, 53, has informed board of education officials of his desire to step down over the conflict.

During Tuesday’s ceremony, Kitasaka apologized to the students and school staff for causing anxiety.

“I am sorry for worrying you during the winter holidays, as newspapers and television reported the story of Toyosato Elementary daily,” he said, adding he hoped the children can adjust quickly to school life in the makeshift building.

Hidenori Takeuchi, a member of the residents’ opposition group, said it was deeply regrettable that the makeshift building will be used for classes.

“I hope the renovations on the main school building are completed as quickly as possible so classes can resume there,” he said.

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