19 June 2006

Towards greater local control of the public school system

UPDATE: Newsbreak magazine has published the following piece in its online edition. It can be accessed here.

TWO weekends back, an engrossing discussion regarding the sorry state of the public school system took place (and continues to) in Dean Jorge Bocobo’s blog. The discussion started with the question: If every year the national government spends P120 billion on a centrally-managed public school system that has been underproviding on basic education services for decades, is there a better way?

I say there is, and it is about giving greater local control of the public school system to communities that will demand for it.

Take Naga City, for example, and imagine the possibilities: The P120 billion annual outlay translates to P6,667 per student, or P233 million for the city’s 35,000 elementary and high school students. Together with the P40M being spent by the city government annually, with P273 million

1. we can bring down the number of teachers from 1,200 to 1,100 by streamlining the curriculum (which translates to a workable teacher-student ratio of 32); and

2. raise the starting monthly salary of all teachers to P20,000—already higher than what call centers give. But everyone will have to meet higher teacher recruitment standards, start as locally-funded contractual teachers, and will have to prove themselves based on their student’s achievement test results prior to regularization. And that is just for starters.

A centrally-managed system for the long run will continue to yield the same inadequate results. Today, DepEd with its 400,000 workforce is the biggest bureaucracy in the national government, and will only continue to grow bigger as it tries to keep up with the rising school-age population. It will increasingly become difficult to manage such a bureaucracy, and expect it to respond to unique challenges that differ by locality. Moreover, there is very little chance to exact accountability over education outcomes from an organization whose local divisions and districts respond more to their regional and national superiors rather than the local communities they serve.

What opportunities come with demand-driven devolution of basic public education?

1. Local officials will become responsible for education outcomes in their respective localities. Non-performing school officials and teaching staff can be removed from service if they continually fail to deliver results. Performance of the public school system becomes an election issue, and parents can choose to remove local elective officials on the basis of unacceptable outcomes.

2. Local control also means greater consciousness over local needs that must be addressed, as well as locally available solutions to priority problems. In Naga, for instance, there is the possibility of creating an expanded voucher system that will optimize existing capacities: putting a cap on ideal class size in the public school system on the one hand, and redirect excess enrolment back to private schools on the other.

3. National and local funding for education can be aligned, and increased. Since the local DepEd and the local government becomes part of a single organization, common education targets can be set, and the resources required to attain the targets allocated more efficiently and effectively. For cities, their national share from the DepEd and the Special Education Fund being allocated through local school boards becomes a common education fund. More so with provinces, which are today’s winners in the IRA allocation scheme. (Cities and provinces are entitled to the same level of IRA—23% of the total—but there are now twice more cities than there were 10 years ago. On the other hand, only two new provinces were created over the same period.) Thus, because they become accountable for public education, governors can be motivated to share their Local Development Funds (which is 20% of the total IRA) to augment their comparatively smaller SEFs.

Of course, this scheme has its own pitfalls. One is the country’s mixed experience with decentralization under the 1991 Local Government Code, which devolved agriculture, health and social services, as correctly pointed out by a fellow blog commenter. Another is the fear that the system will be politicized. But these are manageable risks. That is why there is need to implement this selectively, demand being the primary criterion.

When local communities and their leaders demand for, and are given local control over public education, it is greater power that comes with even greater responsibilities. But when local stakeholders have a bigger voice in governance—which is what Naga has been pioneering in the Philippines under the leadership of Mayor Jesse Robredo—there are enough mechanisms for ensuring that the local state will behave and exercise this power responsibly.