August 29, 2023
MANILA – As millions of Filipino students troop back to school today, the calming sight of bare walls would probably be the least of their concerns, compared to the lack of classrooms and school desks. On top of the worsening quality of Philippine public school education, the unsolved shortage of classrooms remains a constant every school opening.
The problem is more acute this academic year with more than 16.8 million learners enrolled as of last week, who are expected to attend full in-person classes with the lifting of the COVID-19 emergency. This, despite the Department of Education’s (DepEd) admission of a shortage of 159,000 classrooms in the country, about four times bigger than the 40,000 shortage projected by the agency in August last year. Education Undersecretary Epimaco Densing III said the shortage affected 4 million to 5 million students nationwide.
The classroom shortage continues to persist even with the education sector getting the biggest slice of the national budget. For 2024, P924.7 billion was set aside for education, accounting for 16 percent of the National Expenditure Program, with P758.6 billion going to the DepEd alone.
In his second State of the Nation Address in July, President Marcos assured the nation that “public schools and facilities are being increased and fortified,” and that “the shortage of classrooms and facilities is being addressed.” Aside from “new constructions, schools, and facilities are being retrofitted to become ready for the future — ready for hybrid and high-tech learning, and also climate-ready and disaster-proof,’’ he added.
Yet this assurance is not reflected in the DepEd’s budget priorities. Only part of the P33.8 billion budget for the basic education facilities program for 2024 will be spent to build 7,879 new classrooms and technical-vocational laboratories. According to the DepEd itself, 13,000 new classrooms should be built every year to account for the annual 2-percent increase in enrollment.
Education Assistant Secretary Francis Cesar Bringas told a hearing of the Senate basic education committee that the DepEd will need P397 billion to wipe out the classroom backlog.
As a stop-gap measure to insufficient learning facilities, the DepEd continues to divide classes into three shifts in public schools in Metro Manila and other urban areas with a large student population. With shorter learning hours per shift, the move will clearly worsen the learning loss due to the prolonged pandemic lockdowns that have exacerbated the alarming rock-bottom performance of Filipino students in global academic assessments. While hybrid or blended learning mode can be resorted to during emergencies, this is disadvantageous to many poor public school students who cannot afford the gadgets and connectivity expense, or even have the needed space in their homes to do online classes.
Given such serious concerns on the learning needs of the country’s millions of students, it’s such a shame that so much public debate and energy have been spent on the DepEd’s new fixation on clearing school grounds, classrooms, and walls of “unnecessary artwork, decorations, tarpaulin, and posters” that supposedly distract students from the lessons at hand. The directive has meant extra work for teachers who hurriedly stripped classroom walls of the offending items instead of making other preparations for school opening. It also took attention away from the more crucial issue of schools not having enough classrooms to fulfill the constitutional mandate for the government to give highest priority to education and every child’s right to affordable, quality education.
If the DepEd can muster enough confidential and intelligence funds for school surveillance against illegal drugs and alleged recruitment to outlawed groups, the agency can certainly make use of the Vice President’s immense political capital to marshal government, private sector, and international support to finally build those much-needed classrooms. There are existing partnerships with the public works department, local government units that are awash in cash, and private sector donors. Foreign governments and international organizations are also providing grants.
Despite such initiatives, Densing acknowledged that at the rate new classrooms are being funded, “it will (take) more than 20 years” before the government is able to wipe out the problem. Surely, given such projection, the DepEd must scale up its efforts to generate wider public and private support, putting this issue in high priority and generating enough noise on building classrooms rather than obsessing about cosmetic changes to classroom walls. Students can concentrate better on their lessons if they have classrooms in the first place, as well as chairs to sit on, rather than just staring at bare walls.
The government may not be able to grant the DepEd’s wish for P100 billion a year to build these classrooms. But if there’s a will, there’s a way. And nowhere in government is this more evident than with the current leadership at the DepEd.