From ‘memocracy’ to ‘bibingka’ | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

From ‘memocracy’ to ‘bibingka’

I have yet to meet someone who disagrees that we need more decentralized governance of our top-heavy and unwieldy educational bureaucracy if we are to fix our ongoing education crisis threatening the very future of our nation. Our country’s general move toward decentralization and devolution started over three decades ago with the enactment of the Local Government Code of 1991 (Republic Act No. 7160), asserting subsidiarity over top-down governance as a key reform direction. Subsidiarity, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level, or closest to where they will have their effect. President Fidel V. Ramos invoked it in his trademark “bibingka” philosophy where bottom-up forces (“fire at the bottom”) optimally combine with top-down guidance (“fire at the top”) for a perfectly cooked rice cake that symbolizes our national development.

The Supreme Court’s 2018 Mandanas-Garcia ruling that greatly boosted the local governments’ take in national tax revenues has led to renewed talk about putting even more responsibility in the hands of our local government units (LGUs). Similar discussions followed the passage of RA 7160 in 1991, which mandated the devolution of responsibility for agriculture, health, and social welfare services to the LGUs. That these three functions were singled out seemed to be logically premised on such services that directly impact people’s everyday lives being best delivered by the lowest units of governance—that is, the LGUs that have the on-the-ground presence needed to be effective at it.

It is now widely recognized that education lends itself to the same subsidiarity principle. Yet the Philippines stands out as having a highly centralized governance system in education, as documented by Dr. Victor Limlingan, a Harvard-trained management educator who has turned his research focus on the education sector. He notes how our national government controls policy formulation and implementation, curriculum setting, education research, staffing, organization and management, operations, and financing (although on the last, a small part comes from local government revenues). In contrast, he cites other countries with varied circumstances like Indonesia, Brazil, Norway, and the United States, all of which devolve control over organization and management, staffing, and operations to their regional, provincial, and local levels of government.


It would appear that our country embarked on decentralization of basic education more than two decades ago in 2001, when the reorganized Department of Education (DepEd) supposedly adopted School-Based Management (SBM) as a governance framework. SBM purportedly transferred power, authority, and resources to the school level, and was piloted in the implementation of foreign-funded projects like Australia’s Basic Education Assistance for Mindanao (BEAM) and Japan’s Third Elementary Education Project (TEEP). Even as analyses showed BEAM and TEEP to have yielded positive effects on pupils’ performance, DepEd, for various reasons, failed to fully implement SBM beyond these pilots. A 2014 assessment by the World Bank observed that most elementary and secondary schools had put in place “only
a minimum number of arrangements for community participation and for taking action to improve learning outcomes.”


SBM notwithstanding, the ongoing Second Congressional Commission on Education or EdCom II found in its first year of research and consultations that schools cannot act in the absence of a memorandum from higher up—a situation stakeholders dub as “memocracy,” a tongue-in-cheek takeoff on “democracy.” Local chief executives (LCEs) have affirmed this, citing how division superintendents often block local initiatives for lack of a memorandum or approval from DepEd superiors. This “stems from the long history of centralized and hierarchical control exerted over the DepEd bureaucracy” (EdCom II Year 1 Report, p. 302-303). This is unfortunate, as EdCom II has heard progressive LCEs embrace education as a core function of LGUs. But “absence of a formal policy hinders them from taking a more active role and reaping the benefits of devolution—faster, more focused responses, and innovative solutions that address local context and needs.”

Still, the good LCEs believe that standard setting is rightly the national government’s role, as it is in decentralized education systems elsewhere. However, they must be given the leeway to modify the curriculum’s content and delivery to better suit
local contexts and emerging needs. It’s an apt illustration of Ramos’ bibingka. And its beauty lies in how subsidiarity encourages citizens to take a more active part and assume greater responsibility in shaping their communities’ future, and ultimately, of the nation.


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