Solons tout tapping SEF to help private school teachers

House members on Friday supported the proposed use of the Special Education Fund (SEF) of local government units for the benefit of private school teachers, especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

House of the Representatives (ALVIN KASIBAN / MANILA BULLETIN / FILE PHOTO)

This, despite a general tenet in the 1987 Constitution that says public funds like the SEF should only be used for public purposes.

"Congress has all the authority to decide on what's best for the country. And I believe we can assist private school teachers who are lagging behind. When we give assistance to teachers, it is for the benefit of the students," Cagayan de Oro 2nd district Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said during a virtual hearing of the House Committee on Basic Education and Culture.

"Teachers are just like candles. They give light--this light is for whom? It's for all the students," said the lawyer-solon.

The Basic Education panel chaired by Pasig lone district Rep. Roman Romulo was considering at that time the passage of an unnumbered substitute bill expanding the purposes and application of the SEF, amending for the purpose Sections 100, 235 and 272 of RA 7160, otherwise known as the Local Government Code of 1991.

Romulo, who is one of the authors, acknowledged a constitutional provision "stating clearly that public funds should not be used for private purposes."

But Rodriguez maintained that there is no such prohibition to help the private sector "because we're not helping the private sector or school itself, we are helping the students of our country in private schools."

He pointed out that government is already providing assistance to private schools through various programs.

"If the national government would pass the free tuition act, and then also the GASTPE (Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education). I see no reason why we cannot legislate that the education fund in the local level cannot be used for purpose of assisting private schools. students are part of the public."

Attuned to the pandemic

Romulo noted that the scope of the substitute bill is limited anyway since it only proposes the expansion of the SEF to cover seminars to be attended by private school teachers. This means that it makes it easier to pass.

But Rodriguez said the measure could be made more attuned to the current COVID-19 pandemic. "What are needed now is not only seminars for our teachers but assistance to private school teachers and the purchase of gadgets needed for online students. Dyan sila dehado (They are lacking in that area)," he said.

The panel chairman didn't object to this and asked the Mindanaoan "to make the amendment to the bill at the proper time."

Baguio lone district Rep. Mark Go, chairman of the Committee on Higher and Technical Education; and ACT-Teachers Party-List Rep. France Castro, a former public school teacher, concurred with Rodriguez's stand on SEF.

"I think there is no reason we can claim that this public fund cannot be used for private purpose. While this will be coursed through the schools, the direct beneficiaries of this will be the citizens of the country. So that cannot be an objection to this proposal," Go said.

Castro, for her part, said: "I have no problem na ma- institutionalize yung assistance natin for our students and teachers in private school. In practice, yung mga private school naman po, umaattend sila sa ating mga training na ginagawa sa mga division or regional office. (I have no problem with institutionalizing the assistance for our students and teachers in private school. In practice, private school teachers attend trainings conducted by division or regional offices)."

"Yung SEF naman po ay galing yan sa 1 percent ng ating real property tax at alam natin na mamamayan natin ang nagbabayad dyan. (Anyway the SEF is collected from 1 percent of real property tax that the public pays for)," she noted.

Citing the current public health emergency, Deputy Speaker and Ilocos Sur 1st district Deogracias Victor Savellano underscored the need for a clear policy direction when it comes to the expanded use of SEF.

"Since we are in the time of COVID, ano yung gusto nating mangyari? Is there a possibility that we can give direction kung ano yung usage na gusto nating tumbukin? Sometimes kapag nasa LGUs, kanya-kanyang interpretation of the SEF eh. (Since we are in the time of COVID, what do we want to happen? Is there a possibility that we can give direction on what we want to accomplish with the usage of SEF? Sometimes LGUs have different interpretations of SEF)," he pointed out.