[EDITORIAL] Behind classroom walls are layers of neglect

Given the political influence and resources of Sara Duterte, one year should have been enough for her as education secretary to address perennial problems on basic learning competencies and student services.

Instead of developments, however, what we got was her father’s military-oriented response replicated on issues troubling the education sector.

Before the pandemic, the Philippines was already in a learning crisis being one of the lowest-ranked nations in reading comprehension, mathematics and science proficiency, according to a 2018 global assessment.

Moreover, a “learning poverty” report by the World Bank showed that 90.9% of Filipino pupils at age 10 struggle with reading and writing simple texts.

This learning gap in basic skills and literacy worsened with COVID-19, following the sudden shift to remote learning. Some students were left behind due to financial, accessibility and mental health concerns, among others.

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While Duterte was able to make progress by initiating the return to full onsite classes, the move was rather half-cooked as the Department of Education (DepEd) itself was admittedly unprepared.

Despite the department taking up a lion’s share of the 2023 national budget, students continue to grapple with limited classrooms and inadequate resources, while teachers contend with low compensation.

A week before classes started, DepEd reported that the country lacks 159,000 classrooms and 89,000 teachers, forcing students to deal with congested learning spaces this academic year.

How do we expect children to acquire literacy and grade-level competencies under these poor, unsuitable conditions?

Duterte must understand that the whole point of shifting back to in-person classes was to nurture more conducive learning environments, and this would only be achieved if basic student services were provided.

Misplaced priorities

In the lead-up to the opening of classes, Duterte’s mind was fixated not on the upcoming school year but on securing confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) under the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and DepEd.

This is alarming because expenses covered by the CIF are not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as other public funds, making it more vulnerable to misuse and misappropriation.

Last Monday, however, the Senate panel approved Duterte’s P2.385-billion proposed budget for the OVP, as well as her P756.8-billion proposed budget for Deped. 

Under these two offices, Duterte is projected to have a total of P650 million in CIF.

This swift approval, if not rubber-stamping of such controversial funds by the legislative department is unsurprising given that the 19th Congress is housing a supermajority of Marcos-Duterte allies.

Last August, Duterte’s proposed OVP budget breezed through the House committee on appropriations in under 20 minutes, when lawmakers agreed to terminate the budget deliberations out of “parliamentary courtesy.”

Despite objections from Kabataan party-list Rep. Raoul Manuel and ACT-Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro, the other panel members still outvoted them.

If Duterte has the audacity to ask for a huge amount of money, she also owes her constituents some “courtesy” to explain how exactly these funds will be spent.  

On top of these unaddressed concerns, Duterte recently ordered the removal of decorations in classrooms and schools to supposedly help children focus on their lessons. With this move, visual learning aids, mostly funded by teachers and parents, went to waste in the absence of clear DepEd guidelines on what exactly counts as distracting.

Amid the bigger issue of scarce facilities and learning materials, it is disappointing that Duterte chose to single out room decorations and impose a totalizing policy against them.

Once again, we see that her priorities as education secretary do not directly address the genuine needs of students, and this has been going on since she led the department.

Before even assuming office, Duterte already urged Congress to prioritize the revival of the Mandatory Reserve Training Corps program for students above 18 years old. According to the Department of National Defense, its implementation would cost around P61.2 billion.

If only such a whopping budget would be reallocated to the acquisition of laptops, textbooks and compensation for underpaid teachers, many students would benefit in the long run. 

What’s worse, Duterte has also done nothing but antagonize progressive critics over scrutiny and dissent.

Last March, Duterte dismissed the demands of the ACT-Teachers party-list when they urged DepEd to focus on constructing 50,000 classrooms and hiring 30,000 teachers per year.

Duterte claimed it was “unrealistic and impossible,” adding that the suggestion was just a ploy to divert public attention from alleged activities of the New People’s Army.

Instead of throwing baseless accusations, the education secretary should do her job and listen to the legitimate concerns of teachers’ unions that represent the struggles of the sector.

The perpetual reactionary response of Duterte — together with the inaction of her running mate Marcos Jr. — suggests that they are deliberately undermining the education system because they are afraid of empowering critical citizens who could dismantle their dynasties.

Filipino students are not inherently ignorant. They are victims of an institution that does not prioritize their learning needs and concerns. 

This year’s International Literacy Day should serve as a wake-up call for Marcos Jr. and Duterte that the country is still in an education crisis. They need to set aside their political interests and urgently craft a roadmap to hone students’ potential and competencies.

Children today will soon become professionals, stakeholders, and members of society. If they grow up to be incompetent and unskilled because of a faulty learning system, our future as a nation is bound to crumble and fall.