Same old… same old education woes

Published by rudy Date posted on June 6, 2007

A few weeks ago, at the sidelines of an education forum we were both attending, Education Secretary Jesli Lapus told me that education is arguably the best investment the country can make with the most promising payback within a short period of time. On this basis, the education chief asked how come we are not borrowing the necessary financing to enable us to do the right things and achieve dramatic results in the shortest possible time?

That’s a thought… specially as it is back-to-school time again and here we are with the same old education woes. It is clear we don’t have enough funds to do what we should to educate our children. It has been in crisis for years and there appears to be no way out of shortages in our public schools — from classrooms, desks, textbooks and qualified teachers. 

The statistics no longer shock us. Only six out of every 1,000 grade six elementary pupils are prepared to enter high school. Here are more stats: The Philippines is No. 41 in science and No. 42 in mathematics among 45 countries. In science, grade eight (equivalent of second year) Filipino students edged out only their counterparts in Botswana, Ghana and South Africa. In mathematics, our students are only ahead of the same countries plus Saudi Arabia.

Our education system has failed to provide the competence needed by our young people to become responsible, productive and self-fulfilling, citizens. The country is simply not investing enough in the education system. It is also true that the education establishment has been poorly managed through the years by a 50,000-strong non-teaching bureaucracy at DepEd.

Secretary Lapus readily recognized that one factor contributing to the current education crisis in the country is the rotten system of governance. “It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that there is something askew in our current state of affairs,” said Lapus during the recent consultative conference on education in Marikina City.

If you ask our experts in DepEd, they will blame the problems in basic education to “the ill effects of continuing, rapid population growth and the dwindling Philippine economy. Public school enrolment… consistently expanded, while government’s spending for basic education has not kept pace with such increases.”

DepEd Secretary Jesli Lapus shares the view that the high birth rate is one reason why there is always a big backlog in classrooms, now estimated at over 45,775. “Every minute, four babies are born. It’s like every 10 minutes, I’m short of one classroom,” Lapus said. His other big problem is teacher quality.

The DepEd managed to increase its budget for the coming school year to P131 billion from last year’s P119 billion although education officials are quick to point out that the number is misleading since about 85 percent of the allocation goes to salaries of 450,000 teachers and 50,000 non-teaching staff leaving little for research and development and the acquisition of modern educational tools. They also point out that the present budgetary allocation is only a “catch-up” funding due to the increasing number of students in the public sector aggravated by the poor fiscal and economic condition of the country.

But is throwing money at the problem the way to go? Rep. Eduardo Gullas said DepEd now faces a new challenge: Absorbing an unusually large incremental spending program, meant mainly to quickly address the shortages of teachers, classrooms, seats and textbooks.

Gullas, an educator, revealed that the P134.7-billion allocation for DepEd in the P1.137-trillion 2007 national budget includes: P2.8 billion to build 6,000 new classrooms; P2.4 billion in tuition subsidy of P4,000 each for 610,000 needy students forced to enroll in private institutions due to the lack of public high schools; P1.82 billion to purchase 42 million textbooks and reading materials; P1.2 billion to reinforce the 505,150-strong staff with 10,882 new personnel; P1.0 billion to repair and keep up 50,000 schools at a P20,000 per school; P1.0 billion for school furniture to cover the 1.3-million backlog in desks, chairs and blackboards; P940 million to retool 50,000 teachers in English, Math and Science; etc.

It is obvious that there is so much to do just to keep up with the basics of providing the constitutionally guaranteed right to good education. And while improving government finances may mean there are now more funds for DepEd to carry out its mission, it does not mean that mere availability of resources will do the trick.

It is possible that DepEd could get drunk with money and lose its sense of direction. I am afraid that’s starting to happen. DepEd’s foray into the use of satellite technology to supposedly fasttrack accomplishment of its mission is a good indicator of how large amounts of money can be misused. I am afraid CyberEd is one ambitious program that would end up as a monumental waste of taxpayer money. 

As presently conceived, 80 percent of the P25 billion CyberEd project would be spent for telecoms infrastructure, more specifically in satellite technology that is fast-becoming obsolete because of the emergence of the more reliable, easier-to-operate, and cheaper fixed line and wireless broadband technologies like cable TV and WiMAX.

Telecoms journalist Philip Lustre reports that NEDA director for infrastructure Ruben Reinoso Jr. in his Jan. 8 memo expressed his misgiving with the project, and suggested that “the backbone network should be private sector-led and commercial in nature” and that the government should have no financial exposure. Reinoso noted that DepEd should concentrate on content development and end-user facilities since this is its area of expertise.

That sounds to me like very good advice, unfortunately ignored by DepEd and Reinoso’s own superiors at NEDA. DepEd should indeed, concentrate on developing the courseware to cover the educational modules and alternative learning system, the training of teachers on content and pedagogy.

The DepEd should not own and manage the ICT infrastructure. The installation of video satellite facilities and physical structures and capacity building on operations and maintenance is a specialized field that is more within the sphere of the private telecoms sector or perhaps, the DOTC. The Chinese hardware suppliers may be selling DepEd soon-to-be-obsolete equipment and the educators, without the technical expertise in ICT, wouldn’t know any better.

The CyberEd project shows that money or availability of credit from China, isn’t everything. Secretary Lapus has yet to assure the taxpayers that every centavo will be well spent and I have serious doubts he can honestly do that. I am sure the education secretary wouldn’t want to be known as CyberJing “the father of an expensive white elephant” long after he has left the government service.

As in private business, it is good advice for DepEd to stick to its knitting. Do what it is trained to do best and leave such things as application of high technology, to the experts. I agree with Secretary Lapus that we need to invest in education and invest big. I can understand the secretary’s frustration and impatience to produce results that could be felt in the next 1,000 days left in Ate Glue’s term of office.

But my gut feel tells me this CyberEd project is potentially a big scandal that would tarnish his good image forever on account of the less than transparent awarding of the hardware part to a Chinese company. It would still be alright to do the software part because there are experts within DepEd who can do that. But another agency more familiar with technology should handle an open and transparent bid on any hardware that needs to be purchased.

Chinese development assistance loans are starting to get a reputation for corruption that used to be attached to Japanese assistance loans many years ago. That’s enough reason to be totally transparent and not get awed by the promise of technology or soft loans. As a friend, I’d hate to see Secretary Lapus’s reputation tarnished by even a hint of an anomaly in this project.–Boo Chanco, Philippine Star

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