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2006 budget: Debts edge out education

Consider how the public school system has deteriorated:

• Only 6 of every 1,000 Grade 6 elementary students are prepared to enter high school.

• Only 2 of every 100 4th-year high school graduates are fit for college.

• Only 19 of every 100 teachers are confident or competent to teach English.

• Filipino youths rank 41st in Science and 42nd in Math among 45 countries.

• 1 of every 8 schools has a teacher-to-pupil ratio of 1:50 or higher.

• 1 of every 7 pupils does not have a classroom.

• 1 of every 5 pupils does not have a desk.

• 1 of every 3 students does not have a single textbook.

• 1 of every 4 students share a single set of textbooks.

• Only 1 dentist looks after every 22,160 schoolchildren.

These statistics have been bugging educators for years. The decline has been forecast to dent Filipino labor competitiveness, let alone self-fulfillment. Calls have been made to invest more in that great Filipino dream of education.

Yet, consider the proposed P1.144-trillion state budget for 2006:

• P293 billion will be allocated for social services, like health and housing.

• That includes P119 billion for education, bulk of which will go to salaries of teachers.

• P16 billion will go to agriculture and food production.

• P52 billion will be for defense; P47 billion for police.

• P62 billion will be for infrastructure – new roads and bridges.

• 59 percent, or P674 billion, will go to debt servicing, broken down as P313 billion for interests and P361 billion for principals.

The figures are stark. Filipinos will chip in close to P2 billion a day to repay debt interests and principals, but only P326 million a day for 17 million students and 1.5 million teachers in public schools. That’s about P17.60 per student or teacher per day.

Another way of looking at the incongruence is to divide the P313 billion for interest payments by the P119 billion for education. The resulting 2.6 means that one year’s interest payment alone is equal to two-and-a-half years’ spending for schooling.

The Arroyo Administration has billed the P1.144-trillion budget as "a strategic weapon against looming fuel crisis and a strategic tool to fight poverty." Yet how does one rise from poverty if P674 billion is sucked out of the economy instead of plunked into social services like education?

The situation can be likened to a family earning P11,440 a month. Before they can buy anything for themselves, the neighborhood moneylender comes to collect P6,740. That leaves only P4,700 for basic necessities. But the family must set aside P1,190 for the children’s school needs. That leaves only P3,510 for food, rent, water, electricity and clothing.

The P1.144-trillion spending, explains the Arroyo Administration, will be funded by a forecast 23.7-percent expansion of revenues, including P70 billion for the reformed VAT. It assumes an inflation rate of 7.5 percent, and import growth of 11 percent – but still projects a budget deficit of P150 billion. And yet, economists foresee a meager growth of 5 percent, while inflation will soar to 6-10 percent, precisely because of rising fuel costs.

Again, this bears likening to the family that earns P11,440 a month. Their salvation depends on a promised salary raise of 23.7 percent, or P2,711. But then, this may not happen because the factory is cutting costs because of the fuel shock. In the meantime, inflation is eating away at the take-home pay.

Where will the family – or the country – get the money to make ends meet? From more borrowings, of course.

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All this is not to say that the present Administration alone is to blame for the debt trap. Past administrations, who are now in the Opposition, had also neglected education and enacted automatic appropriations for foreign loans. Yet they raise the issue against their successors as if they had had no part in the mess.

Not only the Philippines but close to a hundred other states as well are snared in debt totaling trillions of dollars. Speaker Jose de Venecia, at the United Nations’ 60th anniversary this week, appealed to lender-nations to swap the debts for equity in the indebted countries’ social programs, like mass housing, microfinance and reforestation. UN secretary general Kofi Anan endorsed the scheme, and parliamentarians from many lands agreed to lobby with lenders. Representatives of developed countries promised to study it. After all, they have been egging each other to increase aid to 5 percent of their respective GDPs.

Back home, however, detractors are scoffing at de Venecia’s initiative. Such is the nature of Philippine politics. Politicians, aware that the ignorant masses are addicted to scream-and-slap telenovelas, compete for attention by themselves screaming and slapping down colleagues.

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