Tuition-free preschool education plan eyed (Yomiuri, Feb. 19, 2013)

The government will establish a panel to study a plan to eliminate tuition fees for children aged 3 to 5 in a bid to improve preschool education and stem the declining birthrate by easing the burdens of child-rearing households, according to sources.

The government aims to flesh out the details of the plan before the House of Councillors election this summer, and implement the new system from as early as fiscal 2014.

The panel, which will function as a liaison between the government and ruling parties, is set to be launched in March. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly told Masako Mori, state minister for measures on the declining birthrate, to begin work on a draft outline for the system, the sources said.

The panel will be led by three Cabinet ministers–Mori, education minister Hakubun Shimomura and welfare minister Norihisa Tamura. Mori will be in charge of the panel’s secretariat, while leaders from the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito’s cabinet, education and welfare divisions will also attend panel meetings.

Following an initial meeting in early March, the panel will discuss contentious issues, such as when the plan should be implemented, scope of targeted facilities and funding, at its second meeting in April.

A rough “preschool education outline” will be compiled by around June, the sources said.

Among the facilities the panel will consider making tuition-free are kindergartens, day care centers and so-called authorized kodomo-en facilities, a hybrid between kindergarten and day care.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has estimated about 790 billion yen would be needed annually to finance the measure.

While the consumption tax rate is scheduled to be raised to 10 percent in October 2015, increased tax revenues will be unavailable for the tuition-free plan. The government therefore needs to allocate other funding for the plan when compiling the fiscal 2014 budget or later.

Some within the ruling parties have proposed a plan to gradually introduce tuition-free preschool education by first targeting 5-year-olds. Other lawmakers have suggested reviewing the way increased tax revenues from the planned consumption hike would be utilized.

However, such a review would likely be met with opposition from the Democratic Party of Japan and groups of day care facility operators, among others. As a result, observers say the government will likely have a hard time securing the necessary funds to implement the plan.

Both the LDP and Komeito included tuition-free preschool education plans in their policy pledges for the House of Representatives election in December. The coalition agreement between the two parties also stipulated the parties should continue efforts to implement the plan.

The plan is also seen as an attempt by the ruling parties to win over women and younger generations in the upcoming upper house election.

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Financing a major obstacle

By Teizo Toyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The biggest obstacle in implementing the tuition-free preschool education, which the government and ruling parties see as a key part of reducing the burdens of child-rearing families, is securing the estimated 790 billion yen needed annually to finance the plan.

Revenues from the planned consumption tax rate hike will be unavailable as they will be allocated for social security spending, which includes pension, medicine, nursing care, as well as measures to address the declining birthrate.

Some members of the Liberal Democratic Party have urged that improving preschool education be considered as a measure to stem the declining birthrate, prompting some lawmakers to call for reviews on how tax revenues will be used.

Meanwhile, the government is pushing for a shift from traditional kindergarten and day care centers to kodomo-en facilities, which act as both.

In addition to securing finances for the plan, it is also necessary for the government to study comprehensive measures to address the declining birthrate by reviewing preschool education and day care services.

(Feb. 19, 2013)