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Scrounging Funds to Finance Public Schools in the Philippines
By By Marites Sison
Inter Press Service

MANILA, Apr 25 (IPS) - Classes conducted under the shade of fruit trees or in dilapidated school buildings are not uncommon in rural areas in the Philippines.

And with the meager share of funds for education in the government's annual budget, it will take some time before the shortage of classrooms, books, desks, chairs, and even teachers can be adequately addressed.

The education department admits it needs to build 21,000 classrooms and hire 10,000 teachers for public schools across the country to fill the current shortfall, but the problem is finding the money to fund this.

No wonder that the quality of education has deteriorated fast in a country that once boasted one of the highest literacy rates in Asia..

While there are 16 million enrolled in public elementary and high schools, the Philippines ''spends only one-eighth of what Thailand sets aside for basic education'', says a journalist who has written extensively on the education sector.

There has been a minimal increase in public spending for social services --basic education, preventive health care, water and sanitation - in proportion to total public spending, according to Philip Tuaqo, of the Ateneo de Manila University's Center for Policy Studies.

''Human proportion (share of spending on basic social services to total budget) barely increased from its 11 to 12 percent levels in 10 years or from 1987 to 1997,'' he said.

The under-investment in education and other basic social services was also noted by UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy during a visit to Manila last month. ''If you want return on investment, invest on children, ''Bellamy urged the government and private sector. She had also noted that ''moderate malnutrition'' among Filipino schoolchildren hampered their ability to learn.

Malnutrition resulting from poverty has been cited by UNESCO as one of the factors contributing to the problem of education. A UNESCO study in 1999 said as many as 1.7 million Filipino children in the 7-12 age bracket are out of school. Most are from the country's poorest provinces.

''Although public elementary education is free, school-related expenses like transportation fare, snacks, lunch, school supplies and other learning materials are beyond the financial capabilities of poor parents,'' UNESCO said.

Out of every 100 Filipino schoolchildren enrolled every year, 66 will complete elementary education, 42 will finish high school but only 14 will earn a college degree, says the Center for Asia- Pacific Studies.

The government is trying to improve the quality of education. For one, it has initiated a textbook acquisition programme to improve the textbook-to-student ratio in public schools.

Under a World Bank-financed programme for 26 poor provinces, the education department hopes to bring the ratio to one book for every three students in the school year beginning June. The current ratio is 1:6 in grade school and 1:8 in high school.

With additional funds already earmarked by the Philippine Congress, it expects to bring down the ratio further to 1:2 by June 2001. Another loan from the Asian Development Bank is projected to achieve the ideal ratio of 1:1 by June 2002.

Results of a government-sponsored survey called Teachers' Assistance for Optimum Well-being (TAO) again brought to the public's attention the deteriorating curriculum quality and teacher competence.

The survey, conducted to gather information on the welfare and working conditions of public school teachers nationwide, corroborated earlier findings of UNESCO and other agencies on what ails the Philippine educational system.

Of 405,973 teachers polled, 55 percent said their schools had no access to electricity, while 84 percent had no running water. Only 38 percent are provided with toilets.

About one-fourth said they taught in classrooms without ceilings; 45 percent of them said they brought their own tables to school, 43 percent brought their own chairs. Those who do have tables and chairs say these are of poor condition and pose a hazard to users.

''If these furniture are inadequate, it is the school's obligation that these be provided,'' said Senator Tessie Aquino- Oreta, who sponsored the survey in her capacity as chair of the Senate Committee on Education.

Teachers themselves have also long been identified as part of the problem and the survey results bear this out. ''The very small proportion of teachers who majored in math or science indicates that a significant proportion of teachers are teaching the two subjects but are not actually trained to handle them,'' the study said.

This lack of teaching competence, according to journalist Yvonne Chua, ''explains why the public school system churns out graduates who are totally unprepared for a complex world''.

In 1995, the Philippines ranked third to the last in elementary math and second to the last in elementary science in an international test taken by half a million elementary and high school students in 45 countries

Chua, who has written a book and extensive articles on Philippine education for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), said low salaries and poor working conditions have meant that ''for decades, education attracted the lower third of graduating students or the 'dregs' as Education Secretary Andrew Gonzalez sometimes calls them.''

The survey has also pointed out the urgent need to retrain teachers who graduated 20 years ago. It also noted that most public school principals are not equipped with managerial skills. In fact, only 22 percent received training for their positions.

''An extensive training for schoolheads would help define their roles,'' Oreta said. ''This is deemed important considering that schoolheads are overall responsible for maintaining a conducive learning environment for students and the proper work condition for teachers.''

In 'Failing Marks', an article published in March by PCIJ's 'I Magazine', Chua pointed to the growing gap between public and private schools. A major reason, Chua said, ''is that the public educational system is weighed down by its sheer size''.

She said the public school system has ''poured its energies on widening access rather than upgrading the quality of schooling''

To meet the growing demand for education, the education department has resorted to three-class shifts in urban areas and the multi-grade system (where pupils from different grades are combined) in sparsely-populated areas.

This has resulted in shorter learning hours, according to Chua, who estimates that one school whose students had to give up two hours of learning every school day for four years lost 1,600 valuable hours of learning.

The Project TAO survey said most multi-grade teachers are copping out of this system not only because it is more difficult than mono-grade teaching but for lack of additional support and compensation.

From the survey emerged another alarming development: the current teaching force is aging. About one-third will retire within the next 10 years.

''If the plan to lower the retirement age to 55 pushes through, then the (government) budget will have to factor in the financial requirements for the retirement benefits of 126,900 teachers,'' Project TAO said. The more difficult question is, will there be enough personnel to replace them..

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