Decentralizing Philippine education

It’s time to seriously consider decentralizing Philippine basic education. It is only through a decentralized system that the Duterte administration can deliver on its promise of change. One might argue that this is nothing new as the Local Government Code is already on its 26th year. However, unlike other basic services of government, education remains highly centralized. Driven by a legacy of fear of a politicized teaching force that could influence local elections, this highly centralized system has instead resulted to pervasive issues in education access and quality.

First, the numbers: There are over 23 million students going to 76,534 public and private schools, and 846,455 teachers in the Philippine basic education system. Those working in administration under the Office of the Secretary of Education number to 200,000. Clearly, the system is a governance behemoth that any manager no matter how good would have a hard time handling centrally.

The sheer size of the system has meant problems of wasted resources, inequitable use of funds, and information asymmetry to detrimental effect on education quality and equity. The World Bank in 2016 estimated that about a quarter of the maintenance and other operating expenses (MOEE) budget gets lost as funds get disbursed from the central office to the schools. Moreover, well-resourced schools continue to get resources they don’t need, leaving some schools and students behind. Currently, many teachers have poor subject content knowledge that has further exacerbated students’ poor performance in the national achievement test. But the information asymmetry natural to centralized systems has meant generic and ineffective professional development programs for teachers.

Going to the national picture, education should be responsive to the needs of the economy. Regional economies vary and therefore human capital needs also differ. Some skills and competencies need to be emphasized more than others, depending on the economic context of a region or locality. Education’s responsiveness to the needs of the local economy is greatly hampered by the current centralized system.

The good news is that the Philippines is not the first country to move towards a decentralized system with excellent results. In many countries, decentralization has increased school participation and achievement. Indonesia, for example, rolled out a decentralization program in Java that increased student test scores and community participation. In Kenya, empowering school councils to hire and monitor teachers increased student test scores and improved teacher performance. In Mexico, the Apoyo a la Gestion Escolar (AGE) program that gave grants to parent associations in rural areas reduced student failure and repetition. In the Philippines, early experiments in school-based management has resulted in an 8 percent increase in national achievement test scores.

What decentralization model could therefore work in the Philippines? It should have the following elements: a centrally mandated curriculum, local education delivery, increased participation of the community, and national accountability.

Curriculum should be set at the national level because the aim is a national curriculum that builds towards a Filipino identity and ensures labor mobility. A centrally mandated curriculum that is culturally sensitive and builds a sense of nation could be a response to the conflict in Mindanao, which is partly driven by a lack of a national identity. Moreover, in the experience of the US, a state-mandated curriculum has led to a widening gap between states. This has disadvantaged workers that come from poor performing states and has lessened labor mobility.

Delivery of education should, however, be local to lessen levels of information and make the bureaucracy more manageable. Needs would theoretically be easily articulated and the lines to accountability are short-circuited. Moreover, this would empower local chief executives to define their education and human resource development agenda that is supportive of the local development plan.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child. Therefore, community participation should be encouraged. As families are given more say over the education of their children, they become more invested and equal partners in ensuring education quality. Research is on the side of participation, as this has been proven to increase school participation and learning.

Finally, overall accountability systems should be national, meaning measures of success would be same for everyone. Only on a level playing field, questions on how to reward localities that educate all children well and disincentivize underperforming local school systems could be raised. More important is the shared responsibility that a national accountability system engenders. A mother in Manila would still have a stake in the education of a child in Marawi because performance is measured as an entire Philippine education system and not just regionally.

Ultimately, this is a conversation that needs to happen now. Decentralization is a big education reform enterprise that requires thorough planning and execution. The work, however, is worth undertaking, if only to avoid future generations of learners mis-educated in a system that is inefficient and failing on its promise of change.

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