Don’t forget the education crisis
TThe State of the Nation Address (SONA) is a constitutional obligation and an annual tradition in which the President reports on the country’s situation and unveils the government’s program for the coming year. Like clockwork, every fourth Monday in July, the president appears before a joint session of Congress to deliver a speech.
As expected, many are logging in to watch or listen to the debates. However, not all are looking and listening to the same things. For example, before COVID-19, more people than would dare to admit tune in to watch the red carpet and SONA’s “fashion show” as if it were a celebrity gala. Perhaps even stranger are those who linger over it all just to count the number of times a president receives applause, and then afterwards, comment on how untimely the applause is and how awkward the intervals were.
However, for those who work with legislation like policymakers, congressional staff, or perhaps public policy freaks, they log into SONA with a pen and notepad, ready to jot down the legislation that they take. the president proposes to Congress throughout his speech. This list of measures, often referred to as SONA priority bills, are the ones the president is asking his congressional allies to approve. And, most often, such a request carries great weight. At the very least, a SONA priority bill sends a clear message about the priorities of the executive.
In President Duterte’s 6e and the latest SONA, which he delivered last week, he asked Congress to pass 12 bills before his term ends next year. SONA’s priority bills are: 1.) the adoption of a unified separation, retirement and pension system for uniformed personnel; 2.) free legal assistance for police and military; 3.) the law on foreign investments; 4.) the Civil Service Act; 5.) Retail and Trade Liberalization Law; 6.) the creation of a department for overseas Filipinos; 7.) the law on electronic governance; 8.) Establishment of the Philippine Center for Disease Control and Prevention; 9.) the establishment of the Philippine Institute of Virology; 10.) creation of a disaster resilience department; 11.) creation of compulsory evacuation centers in provinces, cities and municipalities; and 12.) Modernization of the Fire Protection Office.
In many ways, SONA’s priority list reflects the issues and challenges the country currently faces, as well as the ongoing campaigns of the Duterte administration. For example, you will find several bills that deserve to be on the list as they address the challenges and issues highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The three economic bills on the list are undoubtedly a priority to help the country’s economic recovery. You will also find a measure creating a Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a bill to create an Institute of Virology. These bills are clearly a response to the country’s general lack of preparedness to deal with pandemics such as the current one. The E-Governance Act bill has undoubtedly been a priority because the government saw the need for its services to adapt to the demands of the “new normal”.
With the remaining 11 months in the 18e Congress, lawmakers will find it difficult to act on the bills identified during SONA. Therefore, it is understandable that the President does not want to add even one to the list.
However, I would like to argue that a measure which seeks to address the looming education crisis in the country deserves a place on the priority list more than a measure aimed at obtaining free legal assistance for the police and soldiers, especially if the latter’s underlying intention is only to tip the scales of justice in their favor in court, just as they have the scales of judgment outside of it.
In addition, the education crisis lurked even before the pandemic. In the 2018 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Philippines ranks among the lowest in reading, math and science.
When the pandemic struck, the situation only worsened, with continued lockdowns forcing many students to drop out of school altogether. At the same time, many private schools have also been forced to close due to declining enrollment.
In a recent virtual city hall discussion hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute, attorney Joseph Noel M. Estrada of the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations of the Philippines (COCOPEA) said that “the challenges of Education has been exacerbated by the pandemic as more private schools close, many students and teachers migrate to the public school system, and many students do not continue their education due to economic hardship.
Mr. Estrada further underlined that the adoption of important education bills will help to strengthen and strengthen the complementarity between the public and private sectors in education, which is crucial in rehabilitation measures and recovery of our country after the pandemic. Two of those bills he identified were House Bill 9596 and Senate Bill 2272 which seek to stop a 150% tax hike for private schools, which Mr. Estrada, “would certainly be a death sentence for many struggling private schools.”
If this bill had been added to SONA’s priority list, then perhaps more schools would have the confidence to offer classes when the school year opens in mid-September. Unfortunately, education did not make the cut.
Really unhappy because, as Stratbase ADRi President Dindo Manhit said during his address at our virtual event, “People should feel that the government is responding to their problems. Especially in times of extraordinary hardship caused by the pandemic. “
Paco A. Pangalangan is the Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute.