Restore Sped’s budget
What a welcome development that Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte has said that she would defer to the proposal of some members of Congress to realign her P650 million “confidential funds” to more urgent needs of the education sector, including the special education (Sped) program for children with disabilities.
Amid the noise generated by the controversial allocation of P500 million as confidential funds for the Office of the Vice President and P150 million for the Department of Education (DepEd) secretary, netizens pounced on the discovery that there was zero budget for Sped in the DepEd’s proposed P710-billion budget for 2023.
The inevitable finger-pointing came next, with the DepEd slamming the “malicious and misleading reports” saying that the agency had deliberately excluded funding for Sped, and pinning the blame on the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). “Despite our earnest efforts to advocate for our learners with special needs, it was not considered in the National Expenditure Program,” the DepEd said.
“We requested P560 million (for Sped) for 2023, but it’s zero budget,” said Education Undersecretary Ernesto Gaviola at the budget hearing in the House.
The DBM, for its part, turned the tables on DepEd, saying it had failed to provide “sufficient documentation” to justify the requested budget.
Whoever is at fault, it cannot be denied that the lack of funding for Sped will be a big setback to children already disadvantaged by their condition. It is also against Republic Act No. RA 7277 or the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons which affirms that people with disabilities have the same rights as other individuals, and are thus entitled to government support to enable them to reach their full potential and become productive citizens. Specifically, RA 10533, or the Basic Education Act of 2013, mandates the government to provide programs and services for children with physical or psychological disabilities in the basic K-to-12 program, in recognition of their right to quality education.
According to the DepEd policy guidelines for Sped in 2021, there are an estimated 15 million out of 100 million Filipinos who have disabilities, 3.3 million of whom are in schools. The United Nations Children’s Fund said that one out of 7, or around 5.1 million Filipino children, have disabilities.
Given these bleak statistics, it would be the height of insensitivity for government officials to neglect these children’s special needs and allow them to get in the way of their right to quality and inclusive education.
Duterte had justified the P150-million confidential funds she was seeking by contending that “basic education has a direct link to our country’s national security.” The funds, she said, would be used for “intelligence and surveillance” related to crimes targeting students, like recruitment for terrorism, use of illegal drugs, and online sexual exploitation of children. “That is why we need the help of the security cluster and the security sector to address these issues and challenges to basic education,” Duterte added.
These problems certainly need to be addressed, but other agencies are already mandated—and have their own budget—to better handle these concerns.
There is merit in questioning the skewed budget priorities of the education department, with the Philippines ranking at the bottom in global ratings for reading, writing, and math competencies.
The 2021 World Bank report found that nine out of 10 Filipino children aged 10 cannot read, translating to a “learning poverty” of 85 percent, among the lowest in the world.
If majority of public school students have very poor reading skills, what more can be expected of children with disabilities who need special interventions?
Fortunately, the concerned agencies and lawmakers are now scrambling to find the P560 million budget for Sped, with Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman urging the DepEd to “voluntarily realign” the P150-million confidential funds of its secretary to the Sped program in the “spirit of patriotism and frugality.”
Duterte responded to this challenge through Davao de Oro Rep. Maria Carmen Zamora, who sponsored the deliberations for the OVP budget, saying that she “defers to the decision of the majority of this honorable Congress.”
It would do well for leaders of Congress to pursue keener scrutiny of the DepEd budget, considering the pressing needs for adequate classrooms, better-paid and better-trained teachers, and the many health and technological requirements for the onsite reopening of classes shuttered by pandemic lockdowns.
It’s a credit to her understanding of the responsibilities of her office that Duterte seems willing and magnanimous enough to listen to well-meaning suggestions on how to focus the agency’s budget on areas crying out for support. Obviously, the problems bedeviling our education system won’t be solved just by allocating hundred-billion-peso budgets, but by judiciously using these funds. It begins by identifying the right priorities.