Over the hump
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2013 - 12:00am

As audited records show, much of the congressional pork barrel went to the supposed procurement of consumables that are hard to trace, such as fertilizers for districts without farms.

Very little went to the construction of classrooms and school buildings. Local government officials provide more funds from their “pork” for such projects, according to education officials.

But lawmakers, particularly members of the House of Representatives, do utilize their allocations under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to provide medical and educational assistance to their constituents.

The fate of these PDAF-funded scholars is now uncertain, according to Education Secretary Armin Luistro. So is the fate of non-government organizations (NGOs) that received public funding and legitimately worked to enhance public education.

Luistro need not worry about the scholars. Congress leaders, in announcing the scrapping of the PDAF by 2014, said they reserved the right to continue endorsing their constituents for scholarships and medical assistance.

But the country, long a haven for civil society organizations, will see a new order as the House cuts off NGOs from congressional funding.

Luistro may actually see more funds for his department as congressional appropriations are redirected and the President gets even more power over the public purse.

The Department of Education, the Commission on Higher Education and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority have seen their annual appropriations increase every year.

“You cannot go wrong with investment in education,” Luistro told a small group of journalists in a chat yesterday.

The country’s neighbors have been aware of this for a long time, investing heavily in education to boost national competitiveness.

That improvement in our ranking in global competitiveness, from 65th to 59th place among 148 economies, is welcome news, but we’re still ranked last among the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Brunei, which joined ASEAN later, is also ahead of us in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

The quality of education is a key factor here. The country saw declines in ranking in terms of higher education and training, gross enrollment in secondary and tertiary levels, and in Internet access in schools.

*   *   *

Asked what he considered the worst problem bedeviling Philippine education, Luistro replied that with many improvements in recent years, “we’re over the hump.”

But he calls for realistic expectations in seeing the results of ongoing reforms. “It will take at least a decade,” he told us.

The K to 12, or Kindergarten to 12th grade program is moving along, with all levels filled by school year 2017-2018.

More pay for teachers (the entry level gross pay is about P20,000) is drawing away educators from private schools to state-run institutions. DepEd now has 670,000 educators, or an average of one teacher for every 30 students, although in the densely populated districts with large slum areas in Metro Manila, the ratio could still go as high as 1:50.

Regardless of the fate of the PDAF, the DepEd also expects more classrooms to be built, with 43,000 targeted for completion in 2014. The department is proposing an increase of 15.2 percent in its budget for next year, from the current P294 billion to P336 billion.

With those amounts, the government is spending P14,000 per student for this school year, and proposing to increase the allocation to P16,000 in 2014.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the appropriation in neighboring countries notably Singapore, which ranked second after Switzerland in the Global Competitiveness Report.

*   *   *

Education officials are hoping that additional funds and recent reforms such as K to 12 will narrow the gap.

While children from affluent families can start kiddie school as early as age 2 or 3, there is a lingering traditional belief in certain communities that children must not start schooling too early. DepEd officials say this is one of the reasons – apart from poverty and inaccessibility of schools – for children starting their formal education at a late age.

With free, universal kindergarten, parents are starting their children’s formal education at the ideal age of 5 rather than later, Luistro noted, with kindergarten enrolment this year hitting 1.7 million in public schools. He said the conditional cash transfer is helping keep poor children in school.

The “mother tongue” program is also showing encouraging results, Luistro said. Under the scheme, the mother tongue is used as the medium of instruction from kindergarten, with English and Tagalog or Filipino introduced at first grade.

To make education materials more accessible to all, the DepEd is also taking advantage of information and communication technology. “Learner modules” are being developed by DepEd, which can be downloaded free by enrolled students. It’s cheaper for both students and the government, and the module content is fully vetted by education officials.

Making public school students IT savvy is an ongoing thrust of the department. This means providing universal access to computers along with the telecommunications infrastructure for Internet access, which at this point is still quite limited.

IT knowhow is one of the biggest advantages of students in exclusive private schools, such as De la Salle where Luistro served as head, over their counterparts in public schools.

School IT equipment will initially require substantial investment, but Luistro said his department rarely has problems seeking funding. Even from “pork”-hungry politicians.








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