Dole-outs could widen educational disparities
The government has begun discussing whether to include an income-cap provision in its plan to make high school tuition effectively free, one of the main pillars of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's manifesto for the last House of Representatives election.
There is concern among some in education circles over the plan to make high school tuition free regardless of household income, with critics of the plan saying it could actually widen existing gaps in educational opportunity.
Instead of earmarking the costs for the plan in the fiscal 2010 budget, the government should instead use the money to strengthen support for those in the low-income bracket and for other education-related projects.
The plan for free high school education calls for providing households with 118,800 yen a year--equivalent to yearly public high school tuition--for each child they have at public or private high schools. As the tuition of private high schools is about three times the amount charged by public ones, a household with a yearly income of less than 5 million yen and with one or more private high school students will receive effectively double the amount in benefit that would be received by a household with one or more public high school students.
In next fiscal year's budget, about 450 billion yen has been earmarked for the plan to provide free high school education. About 12 billion yen was separately allocated to fund scholarships for low-income households.
Senior Vice Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said he will consider setting income caps in implementing free high school education. For his part, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Tatsuo Kawabata proposes across-the-board free tuition but a reduction in the annual income tax deduction of up to 630,000 yen for families with children between the ages of 16 and 22.
Poor families to benefit little
Prefectural governments already exempt families on welfare and those in the low-income bracket from paying high school tuition. The tuition-waiver project covers a total of about 430,000 students--10 percent of public high school students and 18 percent of those at private schools.
Low-income families will enjoy little new advantage from the government's plan to provide free high school education across the board. Upper-income households, however, could use the allowance to pay cram-school tuition for their children, which could widen existing education disparities.
Households have to shoulder a heavy burden in academic expenses for high school students, including school tuition fees. According to an education ministry survey, families with a public high school student must spend more than 300,000 yen annually just on costs paid to their schools, including tuition fees, while those with a child going to a private high school must shell out about 800,000 yen.
The 12 billion yen earmarked to fund scholarships for children of low-income families targets households whose yearly income is 3.5 million yen or less. The scholarships are intended to pay admission fees and textbook costs. In the budget request for fiscal 2010 under the previous administration of former Prime Minister Taro Aso, about 45.5 billion yen was earmarked in scholarships to be used for wider purposes, including costs of school trips, school uniforms and school supplies.
A wiser way to use budget
If the government were to expand eligibility for tuition waivers and increase the amount of money available for scholarships for low-income households, the bill would total less than half of the amount needed to make high school tuition free across the board. Using the available budget in this way would greatly alleviate burdens on poverty-stricken households.
In the 2008 academic year, 2,200 high school students were forced to drop out for financial reasons. The government should prioritize measures to prevent high school students from poor families dropping out and middle school students from such families not advancing to high school. The government should not adopt a dole-out policy for that purpose.
High school tuition is free in the United States and many European countries, but Japan's education ministry does not seem to understand the actual situation in those countries sufficiently. The ministry should rethink its policy after investigating the circumstances in those countries.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 8, 2009)