The Senate recently ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the “Inclusive Education” Act, which aims to institutionalize a policy of inclusion and services for learners with disabilities (LWD) across the country’s education sector.
The measure languished in the legislative mill for many years. No less than my late father, former Senate President Edgardo J. Angara, filed among the first versions of this measure during the 13th Congress (between 2004 to 2007). Later, Senator Pia Cayetano re-filed the measure, continued to improve on it, and brought it to plenary discussion. For our part, we started filing versions of the measure as early as 2013, when we were elected to our first term as Senator. But it was only through the able shepherding of our seatmate and Basic Education Committee Chairperson Win Gatchalian that the measure was able to pass muster and finally be transmitted to the Executive for the President’s signature.
To our understanding, it took several public hearings and equally numerous technical working group meetings—not to mention repeated back-and-forth discussions between the Senate and House panels—to finally arrive upon a version that is acceptable not only to the government’s education agencies but also across the highly diverse and dynamic milieu of civil society groups, with their respective advocacies and points-of-view.
An important feature of this measure is its emphasis on a sweeping policy for inclusion, that mandates all early and basic education schools—whether public or private—to ensure equitable access to quality education to every LWD. This means that no LWD could be denied admission based on whatever disability they possess.
There is also the progressive establishment of a nationwide network of Inclusive Learning Resource Centers (ILRCs), formerly known as Special Education or SPED Centers in every school district, municipality, and city. These ILRCs will be tasked to provide free “inclusive education” programs and support services to learners with disabilities covered by their respective jurisdictions. Such programs and support services include expert diagnoses and multi-disciplinary assessments of LWDs; formulation and implementation of “individualized education plans” or IEPs which are catered to the specific needs of the learners; development of appropriate learning materials and modules; training and capacity-building programs for basic education teachers, administrators and other relevant staff; and among others, the operation of a referral system that allows for a meaningful whole-of-community approach to fulfilling the needs of LWDs.
Another vital component is the establishment of a Child Find System (CFS) through which efforts will be undertaken to identify, locate, and evaluate LWDs not more than 24 years old who are not receiving basic education services. This provision is particularly critical given that data is sparse and outdated on the actual number and status of LWDs across the country. By finding the learners who need specialized support, such mechanism will be essential to realizing the broad objective of building a truly inclusive education system throughout the country.
Indeed, the measure comes at a most critical juncture in our society, where the ongoing pandemic has revealed and even exacerbated many infirmities in our education sector. While it’s been well-documented that students across the board faced immense difficulties in the transition to remote learning options, what didn’t get much attention is how the community quarantines have made it even more difficult for LWDs to gain access to quality education. For School Year 2019 – 2020, a little less than 94,000 LWDs enrolled in Department of Education (DepEd) schools, a 74-percent drop from pre-pandemic levels.
To be clear, a lot more interventions are needed to get the learning trajectories of our LWDs back on track as the end of the COVID-19 pandemic nears. But with the approval of the Inclusive Education Act, we would be ensuring that inclusivity becomes a cornerstone of the education system that we will be building or improving in the coming years. A crisis after all is always an opportunity to build back better. And thanks to the efforts of Senator Win Gatchalian, we are closer to having an education system where indeed no one is left behind.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
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