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School building backlog raises questions about gov’t efficiency

PHILSTAR

By Diego Gabriel C. Robles

THE CLASSROOM SHORTAGE, estimated at 40,000 units, is not just a matter of adequate funding, with the government’s capacity to implement infrastructure projects also coming into question, economists said.

“This is not an issue of amount. I think this is now an issue of priorities and efficiency in working with the budget. The problem has persisted for so long. Every school year, this is the problem. There must be a structural or systemic issue that must be addressed beyond budget,” economist John Paolo R. Rivera of the Asian Institute of Management said.

“Money can only do so much. Even if you increase the budget to billions and trillions, if it is not efficiently used, the problem will persist because you do not address the root cause — this is the core of economic policy.”

On Friday, Budget Secretary Amenah F. Pangandaman said that, despite the increase of P3 billion for school construction, the government still does not have sufficient funds in the proposed 2023 national budget to address the backlog in classrooms, citing fiscal constraints and the absorptive capacity of implementing departments and agencies.

House Assistant Minority Leader and Gabriela Representative Arlene D. Brosas said the proposed 2023 budget of P5.268 trillion is weighted more towards road networks (P429 billion) and right of way acquisition (P28.6 billion), much larger than the allocation for school construction (P13.9 billion) and housing and community facilities (P2.5 billion).

“The question is which of these projects — schools versus infrastructure — has a higher social return. The National Government should subsidize the education of both urban and rural areas since it is the nation, particularly Metro Manila, that benefits as a whole from education,” according to Leonardo A. Lanzona, director of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development .

“Given the resumption of face-to-face or in-person schooling, with a target of 100% (onsite education) by November, any lack of classrooms will be felt and could be a priority again,” Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. Chief Economist Michael L. Ricafort said, noting how funds for classrooms were reallocated during the height of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic as school facilities fell into disuse.

Mr. Ricafort said the shortage suggests that the government is not giving due priority to education, as required by the Constitution.

Education had received the biggest 2023 proposed budget allocation at P852.8 billion, up 8.2%.

“Does it mean that it is costly to maintain the education sector in terms of salaries, overhead, and other operating expenses, even during the pandemic?” Mr. Ricafort said.

“Some LGUs (local government units) lack land or (have to pay for) more expensive land to build classrooms, especially in highly populated, urban areas, and may have to build more high-rise school buildings,” he added in a Viber message.

Mr. Lanzona attributed most of the shortage to the “failure to assess the real value of education to society,” saying that the share of education has been low relative to other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Implementation is an issue since the budget has mainly been allocated to teachers and other associated items, not to buildings,” Mr. Lanzona said in an e-mail.

“With the Mandanas ruling, local governments may be made more responsible for constructing schools. But the National Government still needs to subsidize the schools since the educated workers have migrated to Metro Manila, resulting in a greater tax burden for the local government units,” he added.

Mr. Ricafort said that previous administrations made use of the budget, as well as public-private partnerships (PPPs), in building new classrooms.

“Prospectively, there could be a chance that the budget could instead be included under infrastructure projects amid plans to use PPPs again as an option to finance the various infrastructure projects with the private sector, just like in the past,” he said.

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