Leapfrogging basic education quality into global standards

By Fernando del Mundo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:30:00 06/09/2008

MANILA, Philippines—He has a reputation as a crisis manager, one who thinks out of the box to solve problems.

No less is required of Jesli Lapus as he confronts a task that requires the perseverance of Sisyphus ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain.

Since he was named secretary of the Department of Education in August 2006, Lapus has done more than his five predecessors under the 7-year-old administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

To accomplish his mission at DepEd, Lapus has used every bit of the experience he has amassed as an accountant, banker, congressman, Cabinet member in two previous administrations and UN diplomat.

“We’re seeing a lot of convergence of support because when I came in I went to town,” he says, catching his breath, wiping sweat dripping down his red shirt with letters in white saying “Brigada Eskwela.”

Lapus, 58, had just returned from two launchings of the Brigada project, which mobilizes communities, non-government organizations and business groups to clean schools in preparation for the opening of classes.

“I told the businessmen this is where you have the highest return on investment. We have to show that in deed, not just lip service.”

He gave the Philippine Daily Inquirer a 12-page summary report of what the DepEd had accomplished over the past decade, including record achievements in the one year and eight months he had been its secretary.

Lapus says that in the last year, the business community alone had donated a record P4 billion to the government’s “adopt a school program.”

He has wangled from Congress, where he was once deputy chair of the powerful appropriations commission, the highest budgetary outlay for DepEd in the last two years, reaching P149 billion this year.

Fair share

“We’re getting a fair share of what is available,” says Lapus. “What’s available is defined as the limits of government in revenue generation.”

As a representative of Tarlac province in Congress, where he served for nine years, Lapus spearheaded fiscal reforms that had resulted in budget savings, a credit upgrade, low interests and strengthening of the peso.

In the last two years, he has built 20,102 classrooms, appointed 5,890 head teachers and principals. Before 2006, about 58 percent, or 26,644, of the nation’s public schools were “headless,” Lapus says.

He also added 7,237 teachers in 2006 and 16,334 in 2007, bringing the total to over 471,000 attending to the needs of 17 million students in public schools.

Assistance to private high schools hosting students subsidized by the government went up to P625,083.

Beneficiaries of the DepEd’s feeding program soared by over 300 percent in 2006, costing the government P2.7 billion last year. Hunger and malnutrition are keeping children out of school.

Upward curve

There has been a slight upward learning curve, still depressing but nevertheless welcome in a regime of steady decay in the past decades.

National achievement test results for Grade 6 and fourth year high school students have increased slightly, although way below passing standards, but Lapus is upbeat that with all the combined initiatives of the DepEd and the private sector more improvements will be forthcoming.

Lapus has initiated innovations in the procurement of textbooks and other supplies, earning commendation from the World Bank. He has also lowered the cost of textbooks and “unbundled” the bidding process, so that contracts are separate for content, publishing and delivery.

All of his activities are directed at achieving objectives laid out in the basic education sector reform agenda or BESRA. The idea is to “leapfrog the quality of basic education into global standards” by tightening system governance and enhancing “school-based management.”

“I’m just passing by this department,” Lapus says. “What I try to do is to institutionalize internal controls.”

But with a burgeoning population, four babies born every minute that translate into one classroom every 10 minutes, education is a mind-boggling catch-as-catch-can task.(PDI)

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