In October 2007, the United Nations marked the midpoint of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that governments across the world ratified and pledged to fulfill until 2015. The Philippines and over a hundred other nations have committed to realize the MDG targets that, among others, seek to reduce by half the number of poor citizens and provide basic education for all.
However, this three-part series of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism shows that the Arroyo administration is falling behind all key indicators of progress in a most strategic goal: education.
In faraway Maguindanao and nearby Las Piñas, more children are failing to enroll and stay in school, and the ratio of students to teachers, classrooms and books is getting worse. These problems gain more urgency as schools start preparing for the opening of the new schoolyear in the next fortnight.
A TOWN IN MAGUINDANAO — Ten-year-old Dino and two younger boys were harassing a hapless chicken under a neighbor’s nipa house. Covered with dust, the boys obviously hadn’t had a bath just yet that day, and had chosen to go after the chicken while other children in this village trooped to a nearby river to soak and to play.
It looked like a typical village scene — only that it was the middle of a school day and Dino (not his real name) and many of the children should have been in class. But the classrooms in Dino’s school were shuttered because its four teachers were attending a meeting in the capital.
IN Maguindanao, children are often not in school because there are more class suspensions than actual sessions. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]
In fact, they had been away — supposedly for meetings — for two weeks already, and no one was sure when they would be returning. Residents here also said the primary school had had more class suspensions than actual sessions, which made the children quite happy, but had their parents upset.
A mother of three whose children go to the same school as Dino’s said she and other parents had repeatedly pleaded with local education officials to appoint more teachers. “We complained because classes are rarely held,” said the parent, who like several interviewees here requested anonymity for herself and this town. “They told us to go to the district office ourselves and request for regular teachers.”
Achieving universal primary education is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that the Philippines has committed itself to achieve by 2015. In its midterm progress report on the MDGs that was released last year, however, the government conceded that this was one of the goals it was unlikely to meet seven years from now.
Since the Arroyo administration came to power in 2001, all key performance indicators in education in fact have floundered. The percentage of schoolchildren who reach up to grade six, for instance, is down from a high of 75.9 percent in 2001 to 69.9 percent in 2006. Elementary dropout rate in 2001 was 5.75 percent, but went up to 7.36 in 2006. Those who repeat a grade is also up, from 1.95 percent in 2001 to 2.89 percent in 2006.
It’s not hard to see what led to these numbers, especially in this province that is about 1,000 kilometers south of Manila. Then again, Maguindanao is not the only place in the Philippines suffering from chronic lack of teachers, which in turn is only one of the many problems bedeviling schools here and elsewhere in the country, including those in prosperous urban areas. In large part, these problems can be traced to two main factors: a decline in per capita spending for education and a booming population.
Per capita spending for education in 1996 was pegged at P1,108. In 2006, it was merely P1,014. The figure was even lower in 2005, at P975. In the last decade, the highest per capita spending for education was P1,337, and that was back in 1998. All these were even as the country’s population continued to climb, ensuring a deluge of students for decades.
Location map of Maguindanao courtesy of Wikipedia
But here in Maguindanao, the situation is made worse by bursts of armed conflict that keep students and their teachers away from schools for days on end, as well as by apparently skewed local priorities. As a result, the Philippine Human Development Report of 2005 says only 39.7 percent of adults in Maguindanao have six years of basic education, compared to the national average of 84 percent. The literacy rate in Maguindanao is 66.27, compared to the national average of 92.3. In 1994, the Philippines’ literacy rate was recorded at 93.9 percent.
Maguindanao is one of the eight provinces belonging to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Official statistics show that more than half of the region’s estimated three million people live in extreme poverty.
The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) estimated in 2003 that poverty incidence in Maguindanao was at 60.4 percent. This makes many of the province’s half a million people the target beneficiaries of MDG No. 1, which aims to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
Provincial administrator Norie Unas, however, has begged to disagree with the NSCB’s 2003 figure. “We have castigated the NSO (National Statistics Office, which did the survey) for that,” he told PCIJ late last year.
He said ARMM’s Regional Planning and Development Office has a lot of socio-economic indicators “that prove the releases of the NSO are wrong.” He did not go into specifics, but made it a point to stress that he was told by NSO that “the bases of lining up Maguindanao among the poorest of the provinces (were) data prior to the administration of Governor (Andal) Ampatuan.”
Ampatuan began his term in 2001. He was reelected in 2004, and another win in 2007 now has him serving his third and last term. Since the PCIJ interviewed Unas, the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) has released fresh figures that show the poverty incidence in Maguindanao shooting up to 62 percent in 2006, a steep rise from 41.6 percent in 1997. The province is now the third poorest in the country, coming after Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga del Norte.
MAGUINDANAO Provincial Administrator Norie Unas [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]
In any case, Unas may find it hard to argue with development experts who say education is crucial in fighting poverty. University of the Philippines College of Education Dean Vivien Talisayon says, “education levels the playing field.”
Mix of rich, poor
And there is much leveling to do in Maguindanao. When wails of sirens break the silence enveloping most farming villages near the highway, vehicles immediately take the shoulder to make way for long convoys of hulking SUVs. According to residents, the convoys belong to politicians who may be on their way to Cotabato City or are bringing their children to school that are likely outside the province.
Maguindanao’s well-scrubbed and powerful send their children to private schools either in Cotabato or Davao City. Which is just as well because there is hardly any breathing room in the public schools here. In chicken-chasing Dino’s school, there are 278 students and four classrooms, which if made to DepEd standards should measure about 63 square meters each.
In schoolyear 2005-2006, Maguindanao’s education department reported an enrolment of 135,990 students in elementary school, the highest in ARMM. But, says a study funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) from August 2005 up to January 2007, the schools counted only 50,204 usable seats for the students.
There was also a critical shortage of textbooks. While elementary students were already numbering more than 100,000, the schools had a total of only 30,952 textbooks for Math, 34,039 for English, 28,810 for Filipino, and 25,697 for Science.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGO) working here have yet to come up with a solution to the textbook shortage, but one group has shanghaied parents to make chairs, benches, and tables, which are then donated to their barangay schools.
It could well be that the schools were simply overwhelmed by the sudden surge in student numbers, and thus found themselves with all sorts of shortages. Last October, the province’s planning office was jolted by the preliminary results of the government’s census: Maguindanao registered a population growth rate of 5.4 percent, more than twice the national figure of 2.3 percent. In 2000, Maguindanao already had one of the highest population growth rates in the country, at 4.16 percent.
“The recent census brought us some almost incredible figure of increase,” said Unas. “We defied established demographic trends.”
He added that this was probably because of an improved peace and order situation in Maguindanao, prompting, he said, people from other Mindanao provinces to settle here. Yet Maguindanao sees few people in the streets after sundown, a sign of a still-jittery population that has lived with the internecine fighting between clans, warlords, and government troops, and secessionist forces. That most of the people interviewed by PCIJ declined to be named is telling in itself.
The province’s planning office, meanwhile, said the increase in population growth rate may be the result of factors like multiple marriages, teenage marriages, return of overseas Filipino workers, late registration of newborns, and resettlement of former rebels. It also admitted to a lack of an effective, province-wide reproductive health program.
Many of the schools’ problems, however, would have probably been eased had the local government decided to pick up the slack in the national government’s spending for education.
For sure, the province’s internal revenue allotment (IRA) has not been measly. In 2005, it received over P555 million in IRA. The next year, it got P633 million.
Big personnel budget
Based on its Commission on Audit (COA) submissions in 2005 and 2006, the province spent as much as 30 percent of its budget on personnel salaries. In fact, it allocated an additional P30 million for its employees in 2006, raising the budget from P154 million in 2005 to P185 million the following year. Its maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) for those two years were more than half its total budget, from P294 million in 2005, to P389 million in 2006.
In 2006, it allocated P10 million for the secretary to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, while the provincial treasurer — who collected P1.1 million from taxpayers in 2005, and P2.7 million in 2006 — was allotted P16.8 million.
By comparison, it set aside P238,397 for the salary of its education personnel, with an MOOE of P1.6 million for that department.
THE Maguindanao provincial capitol [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]
5 teachers per barangay
Data from Maguindanao’s DepEd show that the province’s elementary and high schools have a total of 1,340 permanent teachers and 52 contractual teachers. That means there is only an average of less than five teachers in each of Maguindanao’s 279 barangays.
The number of teachers who actually teach, however, diminishes when they are called on to handle administrative matters. Dino’s teacher, for example, is also the school principal, which is why the classes she handles are suspended whenever she has meetings or seminars to attend either in the capital, Shariff Aguak, or the ARMM’s seat of power, Cotabato City.
Yet the few schoolteachers there complain that their pay is often delayed, sometimes even for months. With little incentive for professionals to apply, there is thus a heavy dependence on volunteer teachers, who have usually reached high school at least and are able to teach basic reading and writing. These volunteer teachers get about P3,000 per month. Often, half the amount is sourced from barangay funds, while parents chip in to cover the other half. Problems occur whenever some parents are unable to cough up their share.
One mother here said that each family contributes P30 every month for each child it sends to school. She and her husband have three school-age children, which means they have to come up with P90 each month; she has resorted to selling charcoal to raise the amount.
The mother said she dreads the time when they will have to produce P50 every day for the transportation fare of each of their children, who will have to go farther to attend Grades 5 and 6.
Their barangay is five kilometers of boulders-strewn road away from the highway, accessible only by habal-habal or motorcycles for hire. From there, the children would have to take another ride before reaching a school that conducts classes in grade levels higher than the one they are now attending.
Asked for the province’s budget allocations for education and the building of classrooms since 2001, Maguindanao’s budget office said it had “no data” on these items.
No school built since 2001
Data from both the province’s budget and education offices indicate, however, that the province has not allocated any part of its public-works fund to build schools since 2001.
Still, the province has poured millions of pesos into other infrastructure projects. In 2006 alone, the 22-town province spent more than P91 million in 37 road rehabilitation projects, with just one costing less than P1 million. Roughly a third of the projects were for roads in Shariff Aguak.
A kapitolyo insider said that last year, the planning office had tried to set aside P100,000 for an information campaign to familiarize the province’s mayors with the MDGs. “We wanted to incorporate the MDGs in the province’s goals,” said the insider, “but the proposal and the funding was junked.”
And that may be why, when an ARMM information officer was queried for data on the region’s MDG programs, he had to ask what the three letters meant.
Meantime, Dino may have difficulty recognizing any letter of the alphabet. At 10, he is still unable to read.