The day after the opening of the country’s schools, it’s customary for the media to regale the country with human interest stories and photos on how, in those communities far from Manila or any other urban center, children of school age walk kilometers, brave rain and raging rivers, take leaky overloaded boats, etc. just to get to school.

In urban centers like Manila, the Filipino audience is treated to TV and radio interviews with parents and schoolchildren themselves on topics ranging from what the children want to be when they grow up, what sacrifices the parents have had to make in terms of uniform, transport and meal costs, what the children expect from their teachers, to how the teachers prepared for school opening this year. On TV, these interviews usually take place with background camera shots of the mob of school children rushing for the school gates before they open, or else lining up for the first day’s sessions.

Despite the harrumphs of disapproval from economists about how some Filipinos choose to put their children to work rather than send them to school, two conclusions are inescapable. The first is that no one has to convince Filipinos that education’s important. The second is that despite that mass awareness, the country’s educational system is failing to meet citizen expectations that the schools can, at the very least, provide the millions of school children who knock at the gates of the system every year the classrooms and even the desks, blackboards and books they need.

It’s been drummed into the heads of Filipinos for decades: education’s supposedly the way out of poverty, the path to economic advancement, the guarantee of social mobility that can make the son of a tenant farmer a lawyer or doctor, or the daughter of a street sweeper a CEO. Filipinos don’t have to be convinced about the value of education and what it can mean to their lives. Education is at a premium in the Philippines, where some 90 percent of children of school age throng the schools every year despite wind and weather and poverty.

Both because of, and despite the Filipino commitment to education, there’s a perennial classroom, facilities, learning materials and teacher shortage even in the capital, where overcrowding is such a problem teachers are holding classes in the corridors, in offices and under trees, and there’s even a proposal to hold classes three days a week.

Although allotted the biggest share of the budget, education is still severely underfunded in the Philippines, where education’s share of Gross Domestic Product has fluctuated between 4.2 percent (in 1998) to 2.45 percent (2013). The UN standard is 6 percent, which most of the ASEAN countries at least come close to. Coup-prone Thailand, for example, spent 5.8 percent of GDP on education in 2010, Malaysia 5.1 percent.

The consequences include low teachers’ salaries (about P15,600 per month) in addition to more obvious indicators of underfunding such as the perennial shortage in classrooms and books, and even desks and blackboards.

The teachers’ organization Alliance of Concerned Teachers has been demanding an increase in teacher salaries for years. ACT party list representative Antonio Tinio filed a bill last year mandating a P10,000 increase in public school salaries, which would have brought teachers’ salaries to, for the work they do, a still meager P25,000 . His bill met a wall of indifference and has since died in Congress.

Benigno Aquino III followed that up this year with a categorical statement that there will be no salary increases for teachers this year because there are no funds for them. He made the announcement in the context not only of the ongoing media expose of how pork barrel funds have been diverted to the pockets of dozens of congressmen and senators, but also of revelations—not exactly the best kept secrets in town—of how his own office has control of over a trillion pesos in disposable funds.

That’s not all. Since Herr Aquino took over, he’s been extra generous with his favored institutions and people, the police and military, showering them with such largesse as inexpensive housing, bigger allowances, spanking new guns, and billions for “modernization,” including the purchase of weaponry and rust buckets for the navy, etc., etc.

Obviously there are funds for guns but not for teachers and classrooms—although, at one point in his disposable term, Herr Aquino’s favorite Cabinet Secretary, Budget’s Florencio “Butch” Abad, when asked why the University of the Philippines wasn’t getting the money it needs to meet its mandate of providing poor and bright students the education they deserve, did declare that the Aquino administration’s priority was basic education.

If the classroom, book, desk and other shortages, plus low teachers’ salaries, are indications of this and past administration’s priorities, every Filipino should shudder at the thought of how much worse the situation would be if they were not.

But the truth is that education has never been a real, on-the-ground priority in this country—not since 1946, when the priority of every administration, it was clearer than crystal then and even clearer todat, was keeping itself and its minions in pelf and power.

Some supposedly thinking individuals in the media have criticized the demand for an increase in the budget for education as well as higher salaries for teachers as inappropriate responses to the country’s problems with classrooms where children are stacked like firewood, and teacher salaries are so low some of them live in housing without running water, etc. They say it’s a matter of policy making, meaning making education a real priority.

But where save in the budget are the country’s policy priorities clearest? The Constitutional mandate for giving education the highest slice of the budget is already a clear indication of priorities. It means that it’s more important than funding a corrupt and mostly ineffective police, and a military that’s basically an internal pacification force with a putrid record of respect for human rights, and which so recognizes its incapacity to repel any invasion or any other outside threat it’s perennially on its knees before its US patrons.

Despite that, however, every administration has found a way out of honoring the Constitutional mandate by putting the police and military ahead of everything else through the billions of unaudited disposable funds, while the funding for education, as small as it already is, leaks millions into such rackets as the textbook and other scams.

The very bottom line in this country is that it has always had a leadership—they’re otherwise known as the political dynasties—that has put those agencies with the alleged right to the use of force and other instruments of coercion in the driver’s seat, right alongside themselves as they drive the country down the road to perdition. Where’s education in all of this? Why in the backseat, where it’s in constant peril of falling off, and has had to hang on for dear life for decades.

First published in BusinessWorld.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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