The burden of a large DepEd budget
What is there not to celebrate about this year’s budget of P553.3 billion from the national government for the Department of Education, the highest budget allocation in all departments and agencies?
Based on the General Appropriations Act of 2017, this budget for the government’s largest bureaucracy represented 22 percent of the total budget. The DepEd budget has been increasing year after year—32 percent from 2016. It is an encouraging development, as it reflects the priority that education is finally being given in the country, at least budget-wise.
I have sat through numerous prolonged budget hearings in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to represent the 23-year-old National Book Development Board, an attached agency of the DepEd, whose measly budget is approved along with the mother agency. The NBDB’s total budget is, in fact, smaller than the DepEd’s chalk budget. (But I’m not really complaining, because in recent years, our patroness of the arts and culture, Sen. Loren Legarda, while busy promoting the Venice Biennale for Contemporary Art and Architecture, has also provided NBDB the congressional budgetary support to allow the Philippine book industry to be showcased at the Frankfurter Buchmesse and other international book exhibitions.)
It is always a triumphant moment after the budget is finally passed, even for the NBDB’s finance head Flordeliz Amante Abiad. A veteran of such hearings that run into the night, Abiad jokes that when the usually large DepEd delegation is caught there at mealtimes while waiting for the department’s turn, or is sitting out the long interpellations and then is summoned to the “mess hall,” it becomes the DepEd’s feeding program once more.
This moment of triumph is short-lived, though, as the DepEd faces the problem of spending the budget efficiently within the calendar year. The recent budget hearings focused on the department’s underspending, which indicated unimplemented programs and projects. This raises hackles, because the DepEd’s problems are known to be numerous and needing immediate attention. Also, there are other government agencies whose budgets are not adequate for their own plans.
The issue of underspending has been recognized by Education Secretary Leonor Magtolis Briones, who had also served as secretary of the Commission on Audit and as national treasurer. Soon after assuming office and examining the DepEd budget in 2016, Briones said: “My findings are that the program and financial management as well as procurement are major areas that need urgent and decisive interventions.”
The issue is important and glaring enough for the department to release a publication dedicated to “Understanding Underspending in DepEd” at the December 2017 Education Summit. A UP School of Economics discussion paper by Toby C. Monsod in 2016—on “‘Underspending’ in Perspective: Incompetence, inertia or indigestion?”—is quoted in the DepEd publication, as it sheds light on why there is underspending in most government agencies.
The reasons are not new, so one has to ask: Why has it taken this long to grapple with this problem? The hurdles include circuitous procurement processes, the incapacity of internal units to process transactions, voluminous reporting requirements, old “carryover” budget ideas, weak monitoring and evaluation systems, the capacity and mindset of line agencies toward reforms, etc.
In the few instances where the Philippine educational system is referred to in the World Bank 2018 Global Education Development Report (WDR 2018), the weak links in spending and the learning chain are discussed, based on a 2016 World Bank study on expenditure tracking and qualitative service delivery in basic education in the public schools. Among the reasons cited for these weak links are: “funds do not reach schools or are not used for the intended purpose; decisions on the use of public funding are not coherently aligned with learning; government agencies lack the capacity to use funding effectively.”
Let us spend well, let us see results, let us see happy teachers and happier learners. No reason is acceptable otherwise as we confront the obvious learning crisis in our midst.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (email@example.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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