The presidential business of (mis)educating Filipinos

Like any voter looking for answers to the most pressing issues of the day, I sat in front of our television for ninety minutes, anticipating a lively exchange among presidential candidates for the May polls. I expected that apart from saying something civil about each other’s conduct, performance, and platform of government, the candidates would be more straightforward on issues like corruption, indecisiveness, incompetence, inexperience, and human rights violations linked to each one of them. But as it turned out, I watched with a wrong set of expectations. What transpired was a modified quiz bee that talked a little bit about what can be expected of the candidates when elected. I would learn later that the ‘debate’ was patterned after the Republican debates in the United States. “No wonder it was lousy,” said Rain, our seven year old boy, upon learning about the format.

I was hoping that a question on education would be among the first to be thrown in, especially so that the first leg of the debate took place in Mindanao where, based on Philippine Statistics Authority’s records, three of its regions—ARMM, Socsargen, and Davao—registered consistently the highest combined dropout rate among elementary and high school students since 2007. The ARMM’s 14 percent, Socsargen’s 12.3 percent, and Davao’s 12.2 are in fact higher than the national dropout rate of 10 percent. I understand how and why the framing of the debate highlights the precarious peace situation in Mindanao, but it is utterly disappointing that the discourse on education is conveniently sidelined in favor of soundbites, none of which came out blazingly from either one of the candidates. Debates over issues on education would have provided the lens from which the audience could view and discern the compelling and the competing narratives that tend to confuse rather than enlighten people on the so-called Mindanao issue.\

Six years ago at an education conference I attended at the Capitol University, where the first leg of the presidential debate was held, delegates from all over the world came to participate in a variety of thematic sessions designed along the overarching question on how to make education truly inclusive and for all. Against the backdrop of sinking budgets in education in the Philippines and elsewhere at that time, we confronted questions such as on how our respective governments and institutions both public and private are responding to the urgency of meeting the Millennium Development Goals as well as the Education for All agenda five years from then, in 2015. Today is February 2016, a good two months after the deadline lapsed. To the best of my recollection, we have not fully achieved our own national targets. As you are reading this piece, there are 124 million out of school youth and 150 million children between the age of five and 14 have been forced to enter into the labor force in different parts of the world.

I reckon that in 2010 we were at the crossroads, uncertain of where the next leadership will lead us but constant in our faith and commitment as to where our common advocacy in education should be headed. On Sunday, the same realization dawned upon me as I was watching the debate where aspiring presidential candidates tried but failed to impress us with their mediocre understanding of things that really matter to us, voters or not. Again, they say, it’s the format.

If people are keenly aware, we are in transition from the current administration to the next. To some, this is no big deal as this happens every six years. However, there is always a danger in belittling the importance of such period. Isn’t it we thought that when the Marcoses fled, and with Mrs. Aquino at the helm of our newly-restored democracy in transition, everything would be fine? Of course, we inaugurated the 1987 Constitution with the accompanying hope that that sacred document would prevent the rise of a new dictator. True enough, we have not seen a Marcos 2.0. But what we have in our midst are the mini Marcoses, mini-dictatorships that deformed our institutions and political system. Thankfully, a fitting question about these finally popped up in the debate between the vice president and Senator Miriam Santiago. It was about political dynasties, of which the vice president’s family belongs and even proud of it and for which issue Sen. Santiago wanted to address by proposing an enabling law on the Constitutional prohibition of political dynasties. But as fate would have it, hers and the various anti-dynasty measures filed in both houses of Congress have not seen the light of day for why would dynastic members of Congress legislate their eventual extinction.

We have come to accept the fact that the transition from dictatorship to democracy was a double edged-sword. While we shun centralist decision-making, we installed replicas of authoritarianism in many parts of the county. What facilitated this anomaly, if not abhorrent regression, is the failure of our education system to produce the kind of citizens that are not only conscious of attempts at revisionism but are ready and committed to resist the return of authoritarianism in its many guises. While we have produced vast amounts of knowledge and information in the last thirty years, unfortunately these were not enough to equip us with wisdom, foresight, and critical thinking that would have guided us in those crucial transitions that many of us care less for their seeming ordinariness.

There is another transition across the Pacific, as the Americans will go to polls in November. Whether we like it or not, the results of their election not only will shake the Washington establishment; they send tremors across the Pacific, the Atlantic, and virtually all parts of the known universe as Washington dominates the shaping of the global agenda on education and development and the associated funding and resource mobilization. In the face of these transitions, where do we stand? What needs to be done?

The answers to questions beyond shortfalls in the Millennium Development Goals, for one, could not wait until the second leg of the debate moves to Cebu City, or until someone fully explains to the candidates why we are moving to Sustainable Development Goals 2030. I believe the public has waited long enough that any delay in the answer to their questions would be viewed as an evasion if not an outright refusal to address those issues. Which reminds me of the word the vice president loves to describe his leadership style: decisive. When the Senate summoned him to finally air his side on allegations of corruption against him and several members of his family, he suddenly found the courage to be indecisive for reasons only Jejomar Binay Sr. knows.

It would have been beneficial if the presidential candidates were asked on our transitioning from the MDGs to SDG 2030 not just because it is the global buzzword of the moment but precisely to probe deeper into how much thinking they put into their campaigns as far as building and aligning, or deviating even for more context, their education agenda to the national, regional, and global goals in education. It is easy to write lines upon lines of a detailed platform of government with emphasis on issues closer to a candidate’s heart. But until they demonstrate clearly how they are going to do it and where they will get the money for it, it is best to take their statements as promises, as Sen. Santiago loves to call it.

It also escapes me why despite the education sector getting the highest budget for 2016 the debates or its organizers did not find education something worthy of top billing. There is a wealth of discussions around education themes, especially that the Aquino administration is now in the final stages of full K-12 implementation with the rollout of senior high school.

We have seen a steady rise in the budget allocation to education, which should be construed, and rightly so, as a testament to our commitment to invest in the future of our children. This allocation is in sync with the government’s social protection program that keeps school-age children rightfully where they belong—in school, or in alternative arrangements where meaningful instruction can be delivered to them. The synergy in these mechanisms produce some outcomes, the interpretations of which may vary in range from frustrating, interesting, and  encouraging, depending on which way you look at it. For these alone, the candidates would have had enough for two hours’ worth of debate. (I shall not burden readers with statistics as they can easily refer to official and alternative sources).

The reform initiatives in the basic education sector undertaken in cognizance of the MDGs and underpinned by inclusion are worth the candidates’ attention, whether they affirm or discredit them. For one, there are gaps that need narrowing. There remains a lot of work in terms of improving targeting to reach out more marginalized families, sustaining funding and mobilization of resources, and crafting of data-driven and equity-based policies to achieve a truly universal access to education for every learner. But there is no denying we have done well our part in our bold attempts at making education inclusive. Whether what we have done is inclusive enough and sustainable is another story altogether. That would have been the point for candidates to make.

When they gather in Cebu for the second leg of the debate, the presidential candidates, courtesy of their advisers, may have already mastered their ninety-seconders to mesmerize their audience once more into buying their promises. Yet the presidency is more than mastery and preparedness as some presidential advisers and academics wanted to make it appear to prop up their favored candidate’s abundance or lack of it. We have elected presidents who were not only reluctant but also largely unprepared. The same can be said of President Aquino, who despite being unprepared is able to accomplish something in his singular vision premised on anti-corruption. The presidency, for all its perceived power and sophistication of office, is also about arranging priorities, or rearranging them when necessary, and aligning all forces within its power to move towards their achievement. The arranging and rearranging of priorities, the presidential candidates must be warned, demands defending and building on the gains of the past administration and never diminishing them that only those who fully understand what inclusive and sustainable mean to governance and education will do at all cost.

 

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