Friday, July 18, 2008

Smoke and Mirrors, Part 1

A full two weeks before this year's State of the Nation Address, Malacañang's public relations machinery went on the offensive with a preview of July 28. If the two full-page spread ads in the major dailies are any indication, the major theme of the 2008 SONA is the promises fulfilled by the Arroyo administration since coming to power in 2001. A recent editorial of the Manila Times boasts: "In fairness to the President, her critics must admit that the lists are impressive."

Indeed, with an annual budget of P1.127 trillion -- reenacted for several years in succession -- a government would have to be truly incompetent to post no signs of progress and development. So, yes, we'll grant that the Arroyo administration has positive achievements; but as to whether they are at all impressive, we should wait until we sift through the figures. You see, when this administration quotes statistics, it often presents them without any context for consequence or comparison, the better to put it in the best possible light. That is what they call the art of spin.

For example, one of the highlights of the coming SONA will be education. "I want a school building in every barangay," Arroyo was said to have quoted in a previous address; and in supposed fulfillment of that promise, "of the 1,617 target barangay without schools in 2001, only 267 still have no schools today." Impressive, indeed. If you go through the Department of Education fact sheet released last June 3, there are other positive developments to crow about.

A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals some disturbing trends. For instance, the net enrollment rate, i.e., the actual number of primary school pupils enrolled, has been steadily going down. In 2002, the figure was at 90.29%; last year, it was only 83.22%. On the other hand, the net participation rate for high school has remained steady in the past five years, but at an impressively dismal 58.6%. All in all, there are more than 11.6 million Filipinos between the ages of 6 and 24 who are out of school.

Likewise, it behooves us to ask: what of the quality of the public schools that have been constructed? Last month, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers raised an alarm over the 2006-2007 statistics released by the Department of Education. Based on that report, in public elementary schools, one toilet bowl serves 51 pupils; worse yet, for public high schools, one toilet bowl serves 102 high school students. The actual figures in some schools are astounding: in Silangan Elementary School in Taguig, there is only one urinal for an entire population of 2,031 pupils.

Using the reenacted budget, the allocation for education last year was P138-B. Again, the figure sounds impressive; but not so when you consider that it is less than 12% of the national budget, or that it really only amounts to P12 per student per day. Of the impressive P138-B, an equally impressive P597.8-M was used in construction projects for schools that did not need them. This according to a Commission on Audit report released in June. In at least eight regions, including Metro Manila, 111 construction projects amounting to P44.135M were left unfinished, unutilized, or abandoned.

The devil, as they say, is in the small details.