by Dr. Prospero E. de Vera
Promising every Filipino access to education is a standard election promise that all candidates mouth off during the campaign. It is not surprising that educational reforms have become standard messages in the on-going presidential debates. Manny Villar wants to expand access to higher education, Dick Gordon promises to increase the monthly salary of teachers to P40,000, Noynoy Aquino wants quality textbooks, and Eddie Villanueva calls for an educational system anchored on moral standards.
What is surprising is that some candidates, perhaps in an attempt to put one better than their opponents, have started to promise the moon to the Filipino voters.
One such example is Noynoy Aquino’s proposal in the recent COCPEA presidential forum to add two more years to the education system purportedly to bring the country to global standards, increase the employability of graduates, and make our manpower internationally competitive.
Increasing the number of years in the educational system is not a new idea. Over the past four decades, the Presidential Commission to Survey Philippine Education (1970), Presidential Commission on Education Reform (1999), and the Presidential Task Force on Education (2008) have proposed the extension of the basic education cycle to improve the content and relevance of basic education and make it internationally competitive.
But what is surprising is that Noynoy Aquino has proposed adding not just one but two additional years of education to every Filipino effectively converting us from a K-10 (kindergarten + 6 elementary + 4 high school) to a K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12) system.
Supporters of this proposal argue that the Philippines is the only Asian country with a 10-year basic education system. Others say students who stay in school longer perform better in international science and math achievement tests; that a long education cycle better prepares students for higher education and the job market, and higher levels of education attainment is strongly correlated to higher wages.
But is increasing the number of years in the school system the best educational reform for a poor country suffering from a continuing fiscal deficit? And are we not better off using our scarce resources to address existing educational problems and programs?
In fact, there are many existing education initiatives, such as early childhood education and the high school bridge program, that have not been fully implemented for lack of funding support. R.A. 8980 or the Early Childhood Care and Development Act of 2000 makes pre-school a prerequisite for enrolling in Grade 1 thus making pre-school education a government responsibility. Current Department of Education (DepEd) data shows that only half of children age 5 are in preschool and some P1.8B is needed to maintain the program at current levels.
The recent congressional hearings on the DepEd budget also showed that we need to build 66,881 classrooms (costing some P43B) and hire 64,060 teachers (based on 1:1 teacher-classroom ratio) just to accommodate our current school population.
And the Philippines, by its own admission, is already lagging behind in its Millennium Development Goal commitment of achieving universal primary education by 2015. The DepEd needs more than P15B annually just to find and bring all school-age children to school and keep them there.
Which brings me to my previous questions – how much money will be needed to add two years to the current education cycle and how does Noynoy Aquino propose to produce this amount given his promise not to raise taxes if elected president? (He has flip-flopped on this position). Remember that he has also promised universal preschool, one million GATSPE scholarships, and technical-vocation education in high schools.
There were no estimates given by Aquino in his speech, in his webpage, via his political supporters, or by his education experts. His quoted media response is to increase GDP by 2% and reclaim P280B from corruption to fund educational reform.
I find this posture fiscally irresponsible and politically pandering. It is also not clear how adding two years to the school system will make us globally competitive.
Even if we assume that the funding required can somehow be magically produced, wouldn’t it be better to spend the money to wipe out the classroom shortage, ensure that all 5 year old children are in preschool, fulfill our international commitment to achieve universal primary education, do school feeding programs, hire additional teachers, or reduce classroom size to improve student-to-teacher ratio and elevate student performance and achievement?
Perhaps the Ateneo-schooled presidential bet should spend a day at the Batasan Elementary School located just a few meters from his old House of Representatives office and experience first hand how more than 50 public school students are crammed in a classroom during the third shift at 7 o’clock in the evening. Then maybe he will realize that adding two more years to a public school student’s life is not the answer to making him internationally competitive, helping him find a decent job, or making his daily school experience bearable.