IT WILL be his first official trip overseas as the country’s chief executive, but President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III has little reason to look forward to his upcoming visit to the United States.
On September 20, Aquino will be at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he is expected to present just how far the Philippines has achieved progress in attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Unfortunately, in large measure because of the shortcomings of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Aquino is bound to acknowledge before other world leaders that the country is falling short of several of these targets.
In September 2000, the Philippines and 188 other countries signed the Millennium Declaration, and committed themselves to achieving a set of eight goals by 2015. These goals – the MDGs – have since been commonly accepted as a framework for measuring development progress for both rich and poor countries.
In the decade that has passed since the Philippines signed the Declaration, however, the country has made little improvement in the three areas that are most crucial to human development: poverty alleviation, health (particularly maternal health), and education. This is even though the Arroyo administration that had a nine-year run at the Palace had actually introduced several reforms that it said were aimed especially at these areas.
President Aquino has minced no words in saying that his predecessor had left him a dismal legacy. And yet, he has also announced that he would be continuing several of the Arroyo administration’s programs and policies, including some of those on education and health.
For sure, his advisers may have already warned him that most of Arroyo’s reforms tended to be mere stopgap measures instead of long-term solutions. At the same time, Aquino may want to watch out for the other obstacles that had bedeviled even the most well-intentioned efforts of the previous administration.
More money, babies
Politics, for one, often got in the way of allocating funds for the most needed interventions. The fact that this happened not only at the national level, but more so at the local government level, is now raising doubts about the wisdom of devolving and decentralizing financing for health and education.
An incessantly booming population is the big complicating factor. More and more Filipino babies are being born every year, which guarantees that even with bigger budgets for health and education, the funds would still end up being spread too thinly to make any substantial difference.
Evidence of this is most stark in education, for which the Constitution mandates the biggest share of the annual national budget. Government officials themselves admit that despite this, the Philippines is unlikely to achieve MDG No. 2: universal primary education.
From 2002 to 2009, the allocation for the Department of Education (DepEd) rose by 6.9 percent per year on average. By 2010, its share of the budget had reached P172.8 billion. And yet, according to a World Bank presentation at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Pasig City last June, the government’s per capita expenditure on education had actually been declining since 1997.
Inflation is partly to be blamed for this. But the bigger reason is the country’s persistently steep-climbing annual population figure, which has meant millions of new students every year for decades to come.
Among the correlations highlighted by the World Bank review was this: as per capita expenditure on education decreased, basic education enrollment rates and elementary school testing scores declined as well.
Official statistics show the current elementary participation rate – the proportion of children aged six to 11 who are actually enrolled – at 85.1 percent. This is still a long way from the MDG target of 100 percent. At least 24 out of every 100 Grade I pupils also never reach Grade VI.
According to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), poverty is a major factor for the high drop-out rate especially among boys, who are usually pulled out from school to help augment the family’s income.
To help encourage parents to send and keep their children in school, the Aquino government last week acquired a $400-million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to expand what is now called the ‘Conditional Cash Transfer’ (CCT) scheme. Originally called the ‘Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program’ or ‘4Ps’ under the Arroyo administration, the program entails giving a monthly cash subsidy to selected poor families, provided that they comply with certain conditions related to education and health.
The program also has set limits: only three children per family will be covered by the subsidies, and even then, a family could benefit from the subsidies for a maximum of only five years.
The Arroyo administration had already injected huge sums into the program. For 2010 alone, the government had allocated P12 billion – up from P7.9 billion the previous year – for it, so that it could reach its target of enrolling one million families. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) says that as of last March, it had already enrolled 956,000 families in the program.
University of the Philippines economics professor Ernesto Pernia says that subsidy programs like the CCT are “an effective way of addressing the existing, urgent poverty problem.”
Among the range of anti-poverty programs the country has adopted, he says, the CCT “seems to be the most sound and promising in terms of addressing poverty directly and minimizing leakages” because of its targeted approach. It is unlike a past rice subsidy program for the poor that had been taken advantage of by families who were not really in need of such assistance, adds Pernia.
He notes, though, that the CCT is supposed to be just “a short-term measure.” A “rapid and sustained economic growth that is job-generating,” he says, should go hand-in-hand with the CCT.
Just a palliative
But some observers worry that although the scheme is clearly a palliative, the government may be deluding itself into thinking it is a solution.
Alliance of Concerned Teachers Party List representative Antonio Tinio even describes the CCT as “a fig leaf that covers the absence of a real, substantial, and comprehensive strategy to eliminate poverty.”
“(The CCT) would never be enough for children to claim their right to a fully-subsidized education,” he says. “Barya lang ‘yan. Binabarat ang karapatan sa edukasyon ng mga batang mahihirap (That’s just loose change. It shortchanges the right of poor children to education).”
Multilateral financing institutions had lauded the ‘4Ps’ at its incarnation. The ADB, for instance, noted its potential to “reduce poverty in the country by 9.3 percent” and to make “one in every three children aged six to 14 who are currently not attending school to choose to go to school.” The World Bank meanwhile, attributed a 15-percent reported increase in elementary school enrolment to the program.
Yet the CCT program may not be as praiseworthy as it appears to these agencies and government officials. For example, the subsidy for each child who attends school amounts to P300 per month, or a mere P15 for every school day.
Lory Geronimo, a single mother of three, says that her two school-going children would need a weekly budget of as much as P250 each for food and other school-related expenses, excluding fare. She says her high schooler’s project expenses alone can reach up to P400 a week. Monthly, the real subsidy each of her children would require would be from P1,000 to P1,200.
“Kakapusin talaga” (You’d really fall short), says Geronimo, who is a canteen worker in a Pasig City public high school.
That was probably why her eldest daughter Mona was forced to drop out in her freshman year. Now 16, Mona has taken on odd jobs, most recently as market vendor, to help her mother provide for her two younger siblings who are still in school.
One of Mona’s neighbors, Mary Joy Racines, says she used to make do with just P45 a day to attend class. But then she often skipped eating while in school, because she didn’t have enough money. The 16-year-old says that in her family of eight children, only one has been able to graduate from high school so far. She is among the five who have dropped out of school. Only one of her siblings is enrolled at present – in Grade II; the youngest has yet to reach school age.
Mary Joy’s mother is a housewife while her father is a street sweeper. Like Mona, Mary Joy is eager to continue her studies – if only she had the money. Were they living in an area with no public high school, both girls may have qualified to vie to become beneficiaries of another education-related subsidy program: Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education or GASTPE. Or at least that is how it is supposed to work.
Aquino intends to expand GASTPE, which was established 16 years ago during the Ramos administration and provides a tuition subsidy for needy secondary students in areas where there are limited public school facilities. Data from the DepEd show that as of schoolyear 2008-2009, high schools make up only 18 percent of the country’s 54,757 public schools, with most of them concentrated in cities and municipalities.
Under GASTPE, an “education voucher” of P4,000 is given to each student to cover part of the tuition in a private school. According to Mona Valisno, who was the last education secretary in the Arroyo administration, GASTPE is the “fastest way” to address the shortage of public school facilities.
At the very least, she points out, “wala ka nang construction, wala ka nang teacher (there’s no need for construction or for additional teachers).”
But Tinio, who has worked as an educator for more than a decade, says that since the program subsidizes just a small portion of a student’s tuition, it benefits only those who could foot the rest of the school fees, including the remaining tuition amount. Poor families thus will largely be left out of the program because they have no capacity to pay at all.
To their credit, both Mona Geronimo and Mary Joy Racines have taken it upon themselves to look for other ways to secure high school diplomas. Since they both lack the means to go back to school, the teenagers have decided to take a crack at the DepEd’s high-school equivalency exam.
To prepare themselves for the test, Mona and Mary Joy have joined an alternative learning program being provided for free by the community-based association KUMPAS, which also runs a daycare in Barangay Pinagbuhatan in Pasig City, where both girls reside.
The group’s alternative learning center, KALINGA itself has run into some funding problems, prompting the organization’s president, Gloria Santos, at one point to try tapping the local government’s Special Education Fund (SEF).
SEF from LGUs
The SEF comes from the local government’s collection of an additional one-percent tax on real property. It is intended to support the supplementary needs of public schools in the locality, such as maintenance of schools, construction and repair of school buildings and facilities, educational research, purchase of books, and sports development.
According to the 2006 Commission on Audit report on Pasig City, its total allotments from the SEF for 2006 was P765 million. Santos wanted to ask for P140,000 for the operational expenses of KALINGA’s two alternative learning centers, but she was told the local government could not accommodate her request. Its SEF, recounts Santos, had been spent for “infrastructure.”
Actually, the Pasig City government had also allocated a certain portion of its SEF for alternative learning centers in the city, but only for those run by DepEd. According to an officer from city hall, the law does not allow the SEF to be given to non-government organizations like Santos’s. The officer, however, could not recall exactly where Pasig City’s SEF went that year.
The Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO), a coalition of civil society organizations working for social development, observes that the SEFs across the country are increasingly used for the mayor’s pet projects. In fact, according to a DepEd staff member, the mayor is usually the only one who decides on the areas to be prioritized in allocating the SEF.
Former Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo recounts that in his home region, the common priority was oftentimes sports projects such as the Palarong Pambansa and Palarong Bicol. “A lot of the SEF money goes to non-essentials,” says Robredo, now the interior and local government secretary, citing cases where certain LGUs were already spending for “supplemental learning materials” even though their schools still lacked the basic textbooks.
Representative on paper
The SEF is supposed to be allocated by the local school board (LSB), which the law requires every local government unit to reconstitute. The LSB is chaired by the local chief executive and the school division superintendent. It is meant as the venue for different sectors in the community to participate in determining their priorities for education.
When he was still a local official, Robredo had commented that while the LSB “seems well-represented” on paper, “in reality, most of them are not functioning well.” He said that this was because in most cases, the local chief executive overpowered the rest of the board, thereby ensuring things went his or her way.
Another DepEd staff member comments that oftentimes, the LSB members are mere signatories of resolutions formulated by the mayor.
Secretary Robredo blames the lack of regulation in SEF utilization. “(The SEF) is beyond the oversight of the Sanggunian,” as it is solely in the hands of the LSB, he says.
Robredo has issued a memo circular requiring LGUs to have full public disclosure of how they used their SEF, among other items in their annual budget. The Department of Budget and Management is also busy formulating the guidelines for SEF use. This, Robredo says, will hopefully minimize the debate on SEF priorities.
No leg up for NGOs
KALINGA’s Santos has been left grumbling over her experience of trying to get a leg up from SEF, but the good news is she has no plans of giving up her organization’s projects. KALINGA has also worked out a memorandum with the DepEd national office.
Santos says she expects DepEd to issue a resolution that would instruct the local government to recognize KALINGA as a bona fide educational organization, thereby qualifying it for funding support.
Mona and Mary Joy, meanwhile, have proved to be as determined to get high school diplomas.
Eventually, Mona wants to enroll in a business course because she wants to be an entrepreneur. Mary Joy wants to be a teacher someday.
She explains why: “Para ako na rin ‘yung magtuturo sa mga kapatid ko… para matuto naman silang bumasa, sumulat, umintindi. Kasi wala namang magpapaaral sa kanila, e. (That way, I will be the one to teach my siblings…so that they can learn to read, write, comprehend. Nobody will finance their schooling, anyway).”— PCIJ, September 2010