The drastic idea of abolishing a key administrative body put forward recently by a city in Saitama Prefecture has sent shock-waves through those involved in Japan’s education system.

Last week, the city of Shiki told the central government that it wants to set up a special deregulation zone, under which it would scrap the municipal education board.

The central government has been accepting applications since April from local governments that want to establish special deregulation zones where existing regulations can be eased.

Abolishing the education board is among a set of proposals put forward by the city to unfetter itself of the local government’s administrative system, covered by such laws as the Local Autonomy Law. It also wants to scrap the post of mayor and instead introduce that of city manager, which would be filled by the chosen head of a committee of elected officials with both administrative and executive powers.

At present, the governor or mayor selects five citizens to serve on the education boards of their respective prefectures, cities, towns and villages. The board is responsible for education policies within the municipality, according to the education ministry.

Shiki municipal official Ryuichi Harada explained that the proposal is the brainchild of Mayor Kunio Hosaka, who felt that the current system does not clarify where responsibility for education policy lies. The mayor also regards the board’s decision-making process as being too slow to cope with various educational issues, according to Harada.

“We have a variety of problems to solve on the education front,” Harada said. “But we cannot make decisions (to tackle such problems) unless we hold a board meeting.”

The city suggested in its deregulation zone proposal that the responsibility be placed solely in the hands of one official selected by the mayor, with the city establishing an education panel made up citizens to ensure the neutrality of the official’s policies.

However, it is uncertain whether the central government will approve Shiki’s daring plan.

Shino Inomata, an official of the elementary and secondary education bureau of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, refused to comment on the proposal as the ministry has not officially seen it yet.

But generally speaking, Inomata said, it seems to go against the ministry’s position that the education board is a fundamental organization within the local administrative system.

“Education boards ensure political neutrality, stability and continuity” in education administration, she said.

As to the city’s claim that the board’s existence blurs responsibility, Inomata countered that responsibility is clear because policy decisions are always put to a vote.

Masahito Ogawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a specialist in education administration, said several education boards have been unable to formulate policies that meet communities’ needs and swiftly deal with problems.

But he also pointed out that if the boards are abolished, a governor or mayor may be able to exert excessive political power over education.

Administrative bodies like education boards have a range of roles, including examining policies from the standpoint of citizens and ensuring plurality in the administration, Ogawa said.

“Considering the diversity (of education policies), I believe education boards should exist,” the scholar said, adding that the board’s functions can be improved even within the current framework.

For example, Ogawa said, boards can incorporate the ideas and opinions of a panel that comprises local residents when they formulate policies.

According to Shiki officials, it is still unclear when a final decision on the plan will be made as the Cabinet Secretariat is to present the scheme to the education ministry to be studied.

If nothing else, the city’s plan has triggered a wider debate on the role of education boards.

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