There are political moves afoot to make the issue of expanding free education to cover high schools and universities a key constitutional revision contention point. The matter is one of eight constitutional revision areas which the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has shown to the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) for discussions aimed at narrowing down points of revisions to the supreme law.
Expanding educational opportunities for the public is a task that both ruling and opposition parties should steadily work on by enacting and amending relevant legislation. The LDP's attempt to use mounting calls for expanded free education as a possible wedge issue to force the way open to amending the postwar Constitution should be called into question.
Article 26 of the Constitution says, "All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability," and stipulates that compulsory education "shall be free." In accordance with the clause, public elementary and junior high schools do not charge tuition.
The opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) proposed that high school and university education be made free by revising Article 26 of the supreme law. The LDP has agreed to the proposal and is insisting that the commissions on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet discuss the matter.
On the occasions of the 70th anniversary of the Constitution coming into force, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his policy speech to the Diet, "We must create an environment in which anybody can advance to high school, vocational school and university if they want to." He thus suggested that he is enthusiastic about prioritizing the issue in constitutional revision discussions.
It is an urgent task for both ruling and opposition parties to guarantee equal opportunities for education, as it has been pointed out that child poverty is an increasingly serious problem in Japan. The DP is poised to state its commitment to expanding free education as a priority issue in its campaign pledges for the next House of Representatives election.
Treating the issue as a point of constitutional contention would be understandable if ruling and opposition parties had in-depth debate on expanding educational opportunities and agreed that revisions to the Constitution are indispensable to achieve this goal.
However, the latest attempt to revise the Constitution to expand of the scope of free education is not based on such in-depth discussions. The LDP apparently joined hands with the Japan Innovation Party in pressing forward with the matter believing that the move will likely win support from LDP coalition partner Komeito as well as other parties.
The LDP's draft constitution makes no mention of free education, instead calling for improving the environment for education with subsidies for private schools. Article 26 of the current Constitution provides for the government's responsibility for making compulsory education free, but has no provisions that ban expanding free education to higher levels through legislation.
There are numerous challenges to expanding free education to high school and university, which some experts estimate would require 5 trillion yen. The government has set up a grant system for university students, but the program is expected to cover only about 20,000 students in each university year.
To work seriously on these challenges, it is indispensable for both ruling and opposition parties to hold constructive debate on how to secure financial resources for expanding free education as well as on the order of priority. It would be putting the cart before the horse if a conflict between ruling and opposition parties over constitutional revisions were to be brought into discussions on the issue.
The prime minister had unsuccessfully attempted to revise Article 96 of the Constitution providing for procedures for constitutional revisions to make it easier for the Diet to initiate such amendment. The prime minister should not repeat the mistake of selecting themes in a desperate bid to achieve constitutional amendment.