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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (July 7, 2004)

Close Regional Gaps - Genuine Educational Reform

Takamitsu SAWA (Professor, Kyoto University)

As part of the government-proposed trilogy of reform, a review will be made of having the national treasury pay the costs of compulsory education. Present plans call for transferring some government revenues generated by the consumption tax and other sources to local autonomies and abolishing various school subsidies to them.

Local governments will then have authority to use the new revenues at their discretion, but the great disparity in the amount of consumption-tax revenues from region to region threatens to cause wide regional gaps in the levels of compulsory education.

The 1990s is often called the "lost generation." In my opinion, the most serious problem of the period was the deterioration in the quality of human resources, which no doubt contributed significantly to Japan's prolonged economic stagnation. To reverse the deterioration, high standards of compulsory education must be maintained and improved. This is even more important than improvements in higher education.

Opinion is likely divided over what the government should and should not do in the name of reform, but few would argue that the government should not be involved in compulsory education. The government has long established the basic framework for compulsory education and shouldered a large share of its expenditures, including salaries for public school teachers.

On the other hand, local autonomies have been responsible for opening and managing public schools. At issue is the extent to which the government should be involved in compulsory education. Over the years the government has been giving education-specific subsidies to local autonomies to eliminate regional gaps in compulsory education. This has led to allegations that the government has been excessively involved.

Until the early 1990s, the scholastic standards of Japanese elementary, middle and high school students were among the highest in the world. This was largely due to the government's funding of most of the costs of compulsory education to eliminate regional disparities. The quality of compulsory education was responsible for Japan's rapid postwar reconstruction, fast economic growth, adaptation to severe oil crunches and domination of the global electronics market -- all symbolic of the nation's successes.

Efforts to eliminate regional gaps in compulsory education levels are now viewed as anachronistic, akin to moves to overhaul past policies for national land development, which have been successful to a degree.

Yet, equal opportunities for education must be guaranteed to all children, regardless of their family and regional backgrounds, to foster the abilities and personalities for a rich social and occupational life individually -- and to prevent the wasting of human resources that could contribute to the nation's economic prosperity and sustainable development.

Toward that end, the government must establish basic national educational standards while letting local autonomies develop original ideas. If a local autonomy succeeds with cost-effective educational reforms, the government should propagate similar programs nationwide with fiscal measures.

The effort may not be easy with the nation facing a fiscal crunch, but education needs a long-term perspective. Improvement of scholastic standards for 18-year-olds and their development into sound citizens are prerequisites for sustainable national economic development.

Concern persists that the scholastic standards of Japanese -- from elementary school pupils to university students -- are deteriorating. Traditional Japanese values such as hard work, diligence, seriousness and integrity eroded during the economic-bubble years of 1987-90, when real-estate speculators could make tens of millions of yen in profit from a single land transaction. Most of today's high school students study for no other purpose than to pass college entrance examinations.

Genuine educational reform is urgently required to train children in logical reasoning, reading comprehension and foreign languages, and to put them on the path that leads to scholastic excellence. Reform now under consideration would only expand regional gaps in educational standards and hasten the deterioration of Japanese children's scholastic abilities.

(This article appeared in the May 31, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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