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[OPINION] Classrooms over confidential funds: DepEd needs to set its priorities straight

By Jeric Olay Published Sep 19, 2023 9:06 pm

Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte's request for DepEd’s confidential funds has become the subject of online discussions and materials for meme production on major social media platforms.

Despite stinging criticism from the opposition and the public, Duterte’s pitch for confidential funds for the education department obtained approval, at least at the Senate Finance Committee. The rancor took its origin from the fact that this type of fund, because of its nature and unrigid auditing, might end up being misspent.

Armed clashes and recent rebel attacks that disrupt learning and undermine children’s right to education were among Duterte's compelling reasons for the additional P150 million worth of confidential funds in the DepEd's P758.6 billion budget for next year.

Though the safety of the learners and school personnel is imperative, others noted that there are government agencies delegated with intelligence functions.

The Department of Education is mandated to deliver quality education to young Filipinos. If Duterte's biggest nightmare is the hard-to-terminate insurgency and its impact on education, then she needs to seek help from and trust the duty of our police and other state forces.

The country’s public education is replete with problems. One enduring problem is the classroom shortage.

Does learning take place if almost or more than 50 students are made to fit in one classroom like sardines in a small can? Take note that public school classrooms are not spacious, and the extreme heat has made the scenario inside the classrooms even worse. I have a tiny room, so the heat becomes my day’s “nightmare.”

The only way to make the public school rooms conducive is to reduce the class size. It’s high time to set a standard classroom-learner ratio at all levels.

But this is unlikely if DepEd doesn’t appropriate enough funds for school infrastructure.

VP Sara Duterte was announced as DepEd's chief by President Bongbong Marcos in May.

Duterte said that she is not blind to this reality, which is the lack of classrooms both in urban areas and in the countryside.

Duterte, since she took the agency with the biggest budget share, has brought changes to the education sector. Among these are the removal of classroom decorations and curriculum modifications. The DepEd’s policy on a decoration-free classroom, according to her, would help learners focus on the teachers and the learning content they shared. All these were introduced and done in the hope of achieving an ideal teaching-learning process. But this is not possible if students are not provided with ideal learning spaces.

In her speech during the Basic Education Report, Duterte identified the soaring classroom backlogs as the "most pressing issue pounding the Philippine basic education."

Since there’s an increase in enrollment every year, there's also a need to rehabilitate and construct classrooms.

The country is a favorite track of typhoons that formed in the Pacific. Some typhoons brought heavy rains and strong winds, responsible for the destruction of school facilities.

In our province, there are still surviving traces of Typhoon Odette. There are still classrooms with no roofs and in a state of disrepair. School leaders are clamoring for assistance since their school maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) are seemingly small.

VP Sara Duterte visits an elementary school in Las Navas, Northern Samar.

President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., in this year’s SONA, pledged his support for the country’s biggest bureaucracy and made a serious promise for the creation of new classrooms—"climate-ready" and "disaster-proof"—to be exact. 

And what can we expect in 2024? In the proposed budget, the Department of Education has only set aside P10 billion for the national classroom budget. The amount could only build no more than 8,000 classrooms. For the record, the country has a backlog of 159,000 classrooms, as disclosed by DepEd Assistant Secretary Cesar Bringas during a Senate hearing in August. 

In the enacted 2023 national budget, the government appropriated P23.4 billion for basic education facilities, of which P10 billion went to classroom construction. The agency’s mission to keep pace with the backlogs is bound to fall flat if there’s no significant increase in budget as compared to the previous year.

Instead of proving the legitimacy of having confidential funds, why not seek all means to increase the budget intended for classroom shortages? The P150 million worth of confidential funds, as one senator has noted during the deliberations, could be spent on building almost 60 classrooms since an average classroom is estimated to cost P2.5 million, as disclosed by Education Undersecretary Epimaco Densing III at the Senate hearing on DepEd's proposed budget for 2024 early this month.

The only way to make the public school rooms conducive is to reduce the class size. It’s high time to set a standard classroom-learner ratio at all levels.

Since Duterte is expected to acquire strong support from Congress, the removal of the confidential funds from her agency’s proposed budget is unworkable. One could only hope that her office would find viable options to address classroom shortages.

The public is no stranger to the old and pandemic-induced problems in the country’s educational system, which is why any policy or action of DepEd is not safe from public interference. I believe that any sensible discourse would lead to the birth of better ideas—only if Duterte considers the comments of others as constructive, not an attack.

As to the inclusion of confidential or intelligence funds, there’s way more significant "intelligence" that we want to cultivate among our learners. May VP-Secretary Sara Duterte, our DepEd boss, get her priorities straight.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of PhilSTAR L!fe, its parent company and affiliates, or its staff.