Almost all parties are pitching various “free education” programs in their campaign platforms for the Oct. 22 Lower House election.

The popularity of free education as a campaign promise is apparently due to the positive image of “investment in the future” that such programs can conjure up.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party pledges to introduce a program to offer free education for preschool children and others to be funded by part of the additional revenue from the scheduled hike of the consumption tax rate to 10 percent. The step would involve changing the current plan about how to use the new money.

The LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, calls for eliminating tuition fees for private high schools.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s new Kibo no To (Hope) party vows to freeze the consumption tax hike and offer free early childhood education.

Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) says it will seek a constitutional amendment to make education of all levels free, while another new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), promises to scrap the income cap on eligibility for free high school education.

All these parties and the Japanese Communist Party are turning to the power of free education to attract votes.

Making education of all levels free would be an ideal education policy if there is enough spare money in state coffers.

But the government has saddled itself with a staggering 1,000 trillion yen ($8.92 trillion) of debt.

Massive education spending that blows a big hole in the budget would only shift the burden to the young generations it intends to help.

Parties should say which other policy expenditures would be reduced by how much to finance the free education programs they propose.

They should also clarify their policy priorities for the various levels of education, from kindergarten to university.

They cannot claim to be acting in a politically responsible manner unless they talk clearly about these issues. Generous election promises not based on workable plans for implementation would only leave voters uninformed.

There are already policy measures to reduce the financial burden of child day-care and kindergarten services for needy families.

Making education free for all preschool children would benefit middle-class and well-to-do families.

A case can be made for reducing the burden of child care for all child-rearing families regardless of their income levels.

But it would be more reasonable to spend the money to build day-care centers and train and hire child-care workers.

Promoting free education for preschool children without taking such steps could only stoke demand for day-care facilities, further intensifying already stiff competition for enrollments.

There are sharp differences in day-care fees and conditions between authorized and unauthorized nurseries.

Free early childhood education could also create a stronger sense of inequality among parents whose children attend different kinds of day nurseries.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of working women are calling for more day-care facilities instead of free day-care services.

Free education has emerged as a major policy issue in recent years mainly because of growing public awareness of the serious problem of poverty among children. One in every seven Japanese children lives in poverty, according to an estimate.

The poverty ratio among children in single-parent families is over 50 percent.

The perception of the need to stop the vicious cycle of the transmission of poverty from parents to children is spreading among Japanese.

At the root of this serious social problem is the unstable employment status of parents and other adults who serve as the bread earners for families.

Even if education of all levels is made free, many children would still have to work if their families are in financial hardships. There will still be children who give up pursuing higher education due to poverty.

Instead of simply promising attractive-sounding free education programs, parties and candidates need to propose measures to provide effective financial and other policy support for needy families if they are committed to pursuing a real solution to the problem.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 17