FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2020 - 12:00am

The news was not prominently played up. But I thought it was alarming.

This pandemic-afflicted school year, 440 private educational institutions are closing down. It is not clear from the report if the closures are temporary or permanent.

Private education in the country has likely reached an important turning point. The road ahead will probably lead to its extinction.

There was a time when all education was private. The Spanish colonial order had no interest in educating their captive populations. It was the religious order that set up educational institutions – mainly for purposes of spreading the faith. Nearly incidentally, they propagated the rudimentary skills of literacy and numeracy.

At the onset of the American period, the concept of public education was introduced. A nationwide public school system was built emphasizing a standardized curriculum. This brought literacy and numeracy to a larger number, independent of status and wealth. This was the true foundation of a democratic social order.

There were never enough funds to maintain the public school system and accommodate all who wanted access to it. Eventually, enough market space became available for new private institutions to spring up. They were basically run as businesses, although many of them enforced higher standards than some of our crumbling public schools.

The 1987 Constitution mandates that education get the highest funding. That improved the quality of our public school system. For the most part, public school teachers were better compensated than their private school counterparts.

Eventually, laws and policies were passed offering free tuition and prohibiting public schools from charging an assortment of fees. That diminished the market space for private schools and many of them found difficulty attracting enough paying clientele to make them viable.

Today, with the pandemic-induced recession, large-scale migration from private to public schools is expected. With incomes depleted, parents found recourse in free public schools.

A law passed recently, removing tuition fees for tertiary public educational institutions, further tested the private schools. The best and the brightest, regardless of income, crowded out the poor and less prepared for university places. Even the best and the most vulnerable private colleges and universities are now running into financial difficulty. Should they close down for reasons of bankruptcy, the poor and the less prepared will be shut out.

There are not enough places in public colleges and universities to accommodate all the students seeking education as a means for social mobility. Ultimately, by crowding out the private schools, the tuition-free arrangement for public tertiary education is ultimately anti-poor.

State colleges and universities are now filled with scions of the rich, fighting for scarce parking spaces. The children of the poor are unready to compete for spaces in the university system and yet cannot afford the rising costs of private education.

As I argued when the free tertiary education law was under deliberation, this was a formula for social calamity. The class lines will be even more distinctly drawn. Good education will become an even scarcer and more prohibitive commodity.


On the other hand, this event did not even merit making it to the news.

A motley gang assembled last week at Clark to demand the establishment of a “revolutionary government.” The most namable figure in the gang was a local politician who had made a career of losing elections.

Even as this was obviously an initiative that was going nowhere, the usual suspects could not resist taking issue with the initiative. They ended up offering the most ridiculous arguments against it, saying it was “illegal” and “unconstitutional.”

Of course it was. That is exactly what “revolutionary government” means.

Back in 2016, I had some discussions with close advisers of incoming President Duterte who sought my counsel on the matter of establishing a “revolutionary government.” They were mainly advocates of a shift to a federal form of government.

I disagreed with federalism then as I did during the 2005 Consultative Commission of Charter Change. I believed then and now that this would only lead to a fiscal meltdown and foster the rise of regional warlords.

But I have been an advocate of a shift to a parliamentary form of government and the removal of those archaic economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution. The present governmental setup always led to paralysis and the outmoded economic provisions stunted our economy’s ability to grow.

I told this group that it was impossible to reform the constitutional order without declaring a revolutionary government. The 1987 Charter was designed to ensure its own perpetuation and nothing unites the conservative forces more than a call to change the elitist constitutional order. The Senate, nursery of the most ambitious politicians, will always resist its own extinction.

But the only time to launch a bold reformist experiment was in the first few months of the Duterte presidency. The consensus for change was strong, Duterte’s appeal was at its zenith, the conservative forces were in disarray and there would be enough time to complete the experiment.

By 2017, it would be too late. The magic of an out-of-the-box leader would have faded. The consensus would have weakened.

Furthermore, I told them, any attempt to refashion the constitutional order must be accompanied by a clear plan to reinvent the national economy. That will give the people a stake in change.

Finally, it is always easier to mount a tiger. It is nearly impossible to dismount it. Therefore, any plan for a revolutionary government must include an exit strategy ensuring an early return to democratic practice.

The bold idea was soon junked.

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