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[OPINION] Be careful with educational experts, and give Sara a chance

'At the extreme, Sara Duterte can also expose elected local officials who will try as usual to exploit their privilege and position to preserve their power'

Recently, groups composed of educational experts, educational managers, teachers, and students have questioned the qualification of vice president-elect Sara Duterte as education secretary. The complaint consists essentially of the idea that Sara does not have the necessary expertise or qualifications and experience to lead the Department of Education (DepEd). 

A brief history. I remember how the PNoy government, together with so-called education experts and well-experienced education managers, cajoled, bamboozled, and made false promises to convince students, teachers, and parents to accept the proposed additional two years of basic education despite the objections from various sectors. Then, in 2015, several groups and individuals questioned the constitutionality of the K+12 Law in the Supreme Court. But in 2018 the Highest Court declared that the law was constitutional, noting that it is within the police power of the state to enact educational laws including the law on K+12. However, the Court noted that, “It is not for the Court to look into the wisdom or propriety of legislative determination (CoTeSCUP et. al, vs. DOLE et al. G.R. No. 216930).” Since then, studies have shown that the K+12 Law failed to live up to its promise (See Orbeta et al., 2019; Manansan, 2020; Orbeta & Potestad, 2020) and has fallen short of the wisdom expected of landmark legislation that its supporters have boasted as the enduring legacy of the PNoy administration to the Filipino people. At this time, the government has invested so much into this program that it would be difficult or futile to turn back now. So much for the experts.

As secretary of DepEd, VP-elect Sara has the power and the resources to hire and consult experts. Department secretaries do that all the time. And they must. After all, no one has a monopoly on knowledge, especially in the field of education. But this time she must make sure that she widens the list of experts beyond the usual ones who are now insinuating that her qualifications are wanting. She must also learn to distinguish the differences between experts in the bureaucracy – those well-entrenched bureaucrats who merely protect their turf in DepEd, versus the well-meaning bureaucrats who have seen the enormous power of government to create genuine change in Philippine education, if only policies were based not on territoriality and political optics but on evidence. Thus, she must seek individuals who have the expertise and the integrity to tell her the real score and not those who would placate her to keep their turf in the bureaucracy. 

Stealthily, parties with business interests do forward educational policies coated in experts’ opinions. Borrowing some of the words of Dr. Angel De Dios of Georgetown University, who opposed K+12 implementation in the Philippines early on, while “everyone who has experienced schooling has a thing to say about education,” Sara Duterte “must be able to tell who the charlatans are, from the real experts” who have the interest of the youth, who dream of a good education that will move the country forward. Her experience in the rough and tumble of politics, her legal training, and her reputation as a straightforward, no-nonsense local leader should enable her to navigate and see what is behind this cacophony of competing interests and machinations. Arguably, K+12 reform has allowed many schools to enrich their coffers to the detriment of students, especially the poor.

Between powerful forces and interests, there is another group of experts she must not fail to seek out, the classroom experts — the teachers. It is worth noting that the noise opposed to her appointment as DepEd secretary does not belong to a monolithic group determined to pursue a specific ideological agenda. Many of them are more concerned with improving the terms and conditions of their employment, for them to have quality time and focus on teaching. Their interests lie mostly in having better salaries befitting their roles as teachers; access to relevant and quality training; provisions of teaching tools, equipment, and facilities; less administrative work; and more quality time for teaching and preparing for the class. 

Having served as mayor of Davao City, Sara was also the concurrent chairperson of the City School Board. With such a background, I am sure she is aware of the budgetary constraints of the local school system and the various concerns from representatives of other sectors that compose the Local School Board (e.g., the PTA, teachers, and non-academic personnel organizations). Thus, it is reasonable to expect that she is well-grounded in school operations at the local level. Such knowledge and experience are important for the badly needed bottoms-up approach to policymaking in DepEd. 

It is common knowledge that legislative and local officials could wield enormous influence on heads of government agencies in the regions. Consequently, well-thought-of and evidence-based educational policies have been diluted and even abandoned to appease and pursue the political and business interests of elected officials and their allies.

As education secretary, Sara Duterte can influence the education sector toward a better, more progressive direction. At the extreme, she can also expose elected local officials who will try as usual to exploit their privilege and position to preserve their power. 

This time, these officials who are used to pushing their weight around by virtue of their elections would have second thoughts.

Setting a record for the highest number of votes in a national election in any position, Inday Sara, as she is fondly called, brings to DepEd the political gravitas that none of her predecessors could provide. This enormous political capital would allow her, without fear or favor, to institute and carry out decisively meaningful and necessary educational reforms in the country — including the internal reforms in the Department of Education.

Let us not prejudge. Allow Sara to lay down her plans and give her time to implement them. –

Rene Luis Tadle is a faculty member of the Philosophy Department of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, University of Santo Tomas, and a lead convener of the Council of Teachers and Staff of Colleges and Universities (CoTeSCUP). Email him at [email protected]