Starting school

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Despite COVID-19, private schools had hoped for the normal June start to the 2020-21 school year. Not before Aug. 24, the Department of Education (DepEd) declared in April. Only after a vaccine is available, President Duterte decreed on May 25. He reconsidered on May 28, after a DepEd appeal for support of its “blended learning” plan; an August start may be possible. Playing safe, the Senate approved a bill on June 1 permitting the president to start school beyond the August deadline prescribed by law.

For many schools, this discussion on whether to start the schoolyear in August or later was an exercise akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. In April, the Philippine Association of Colleges and Universities (Pacu) conducted a survey on the impact of the pandemic on its members. Only 20 percent of the respondents reported budgets strong enough to meet full payroll expenses through mid-May. Why should 80 percent of schools, projected to slip under the water before the end of May, care about the advantages of an August reopening, let alone of an indefinite start dependent on vaccine availability?

The Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations, which included Pacu, echoed its concern. It estimated the cost of the delayed schoolyear to the 2,500 institutions its members represented at P55.2 billion, rising to P142.1 billion if the 2021 schoolyear is effectively erased. Bayanihan Act 1 provided no support to the sector. Even the handlers of Sen. Bong Go, who daily find space in multiple newspapers for articles and photographs trumpeting his advocacy for every cause voters might support, somehow missed the private education constituency. Why?

Because the ranking of values ordained by the pandemic pushed learning down to third place behind life and livelihood. Parents of K10 children instinctively supported such an ordering. “Maslow before Bloom,” a Unesco study’s delightfully nerdy, catchy, capsule prescription, reinforced the paternalistic instinct: Focus on survival issues in the hierarchy of needs described by psychologist Abraham Maslow, before debating goals among the taxonomy of educational objectives classified by Benjamin Bloom.

Even private schools followed this approach in the early days of the pandemic. Protection of students and staff from the disease was their immediate concern. With community quarantine, they tried to protect the income of their personnel. With lockdown extensions, livelihood became a concern, not just for individuals but also for their institutions. For this sector, however, livelihood and life depended on the continuation of the learning process in schools.

Education was not just a social service; it was an economic and business operation that directly engaged and supported over a million people. The point that learning meant livelihood for the private schools was lost, even among government officials. The President and assorted legislators were more concerned that these schools make their fees more affordable to their students by postponing tuition increases and accepting partial payments. Why?

Because the private sector accounts for only 15 percent of the basic education enrollment of about 28 million. It still held 54 percent of the higher education market, which covered, however, a much smaller number of around 3 million students. Down from its peak of 80 percent, the private school share, even before COVID-19, had been projected to decrease next schoolyear because of free tuition in state universities and colleges (SUCs). Learning can thus continue outside the private school sector.

For personnel in state-supported schools, livelihood did not require the resumption of classes. They lose no income waiting for a January 2021 school reopening and gain more time, as the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition pointed out, to address issues critical to the implementation of the new blended learning strategy, including connectivity, curricular content, and teacher training.

But the pay of their colleagues in private schools depended on tuition income from students returning to classes. Education delivered a critical social service; it was also an economic and business operation that must earn revenue to support the salaries of over a million people. Without government assistance, many such schools would collapse, with long-term repercussions on education access and quality.

Bayanihan Act 2 allocates P3 billion for SUCs and P1 billion for the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, as well as P50 billion for relending to micro, small, and medium enterprises. Private schools with proven performance records deserve comparable institutional support.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club (makatibusinessclub@mbc.com.ph).

Posted on 6 June 2020 under Business Matters section of The Philippine Daily Inquirer