More leeway for our schools

Published December 19, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Senator Sonny Angara


Senator Sonny Angara

Recently, the Senate ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the 2022 budget, which we sponsored as chairman of the Committee on Finance. Soon it will be transmitted to the Executive, with enough time for the President to affix his signature before the year ends.

Following the clear mandate from our Constitution, our education sector was given utmost priority in the budget. This means that when taken together, the items for the Department of Education (DepEd), the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), and our State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) among others comprise the biggest share of national appropriations for the coming year.

And rightly so, because next to the health sector and our medical frontliners, our educational institutions, as well as our school administrators, and teachers have been among the worst-hit throughout the pandemic. With the abrupt shift to remote learning, our teachers had to relearn how to communicate and educate their students almost overnight.

In no way has this process been easy. But it has been particularly difficult for the teachers who did not have their own laptops, tablets, smartphones or any other gadget through which they can access the Internet and interact with their students. This is why throughout Bayanihans 1 and 2, and the 2021 budget, Congress worked to include as much support as it could for teachers to make the transition and ensure the continued education of our students amid the pandemic.

We sought to extend the same support in the 2022 budget, which is why significant funds have been set aside for schools at all levels to continue with remote learning, but also prepare for the return to face-to-face classes once it has been deemed safe to do so.

While we were deliberating, we learned that even though funds have been set aside as support for schools to operate amid the trying conditions of the pandemic, many Schools Divisions Offices (SDOs) actually found it difficult to purchase the laptops, tablets, smartphones, WiFi hotspots, and printers they needed because of government accounting guidelines.

The particular roadblock was that the capital threshold for purchasing these items was set at only P15,000, according to the Government Accounting Manual or GAM. And because of the high demand for these gadgets throughout the pandemic, plus the logistics costs that have been driven up by the localized community quarantines, the prevailing prices were well-above the threshold.

This limitation had a palpable effect on the normal budgetary operations of the DepEd. According to recent data from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), the DepEd had been able to obligate only 56 percent of its operations budget by the end of the third quarter of this year. This meant that at least P49.8 billion of its appropriations for MOOE (Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses) had yet to be spent. One can only imagine just how many more teachers would have been better equipped to handle a remote learning environment had the funds not been hampered by rules and regulations.

To help lessen the bureaucratic roadblocks, Senator Pia Cayetano and I included a provision in the 2022 budget to effectively raise this capital threshold to P50,000. Hopefully, this would provide enough regulatory leeway for our SDOs to directly purchase the gadgets that our teachers need as remote learning remains the norm throughout the country. On top of that, we believe a higher capital threshold would also help our schools purchase at more affordable prices the materials and supplies they need (such as face masks, and PPEs) for ensuring the safety of our students as the return to face-to-face classes appears to be in the offing.

The pandemic has caused immense disruptions across our society — including our education sector. While there are often good reasons for certain rules and regulations to be in place, it’s better to infuse a degree of flexibility, especially amid such extraordinary times. Our schools have a critical role to play in our immediate recovery from the pandemic, as well as in our long-standing pursuit of prosperity for all Filipinos. They should be given as much leeway as needed to fulfill that role.

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.