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Dropouts push private schools to the brink as public education picks up the pieces

A TEACHER in Dagat-Dagatan Elementary School reviews a recorded video lesson to be used for a distance learning program of the Department of Education. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Jenina P. Ibanez, Reporter

CLASS SIZES at private schools are shrinking, which in normal times might be taken as a mark of quality because they imply lower student-to-teacher ratios. However, the underlying reason is far more disturbing: students are dropping out because many parents have suffered setbacks to their livelihoods and can no longer afford tuition.

In response, private schools have asked for aid to help students pay for school fees, a big ask in the middle of a pandemic when the government is committing every last possible peso to containing the coronavirus.

The other side of the coin is that more than 400,000 students moved to public schools this year. In a online interview, Education Undersecretary Jose L. R. Mateo said 860 private schools have shut down, 97% of them elementary schools.

The consequences are not difficult to imagine: former private-school students who still want to continue with their education may have little recourse but to transfer to public education, in the process creating a resource crunch there and overburdening public school teachers even further.

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The pandemic has not spared larger private schools, according to Joseph Noel Estrada, managing director of the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA), where even for those that remain open, the story is declining revenue alongside increased expenses, mainly spending on digital teaching systems.

“Private schools have tried many approaches to this, from scaling down operations, cutting down on expenses to more extreme measures like laying off faculty and teachers… some have even retained faculty and teachers under a ‘no work-no pay’ scheme since the lockdown,” he said in a phone interview.

Mr. Estrada said that the industry lost around half of its students compared with the previous school year, with only around two million enrolling. Tuition discounts of 20-30% were also offered to help students in financial distress, he said.

Meanwhile, with the public school system absorbing new students, the main problem appears to be transitioning the teaching staff to new reality of virtual teaching.

“Blended learning is hard. Public school teachers are using their messenger apps to accommodate the questions of students and the parents helping them,” according to France L. Castro, a party-list legislator representing the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT).

“They need internet allowances… That’s an additional cost for them,” she said in a phone interview, pointing to the urgency of digital literacy training.

The scramble for resources extends to the Department of Education (DepEd). While education agencies including DepEd collectively have the largest share of the 2021 budget, Ms. Castro maintained that the annual teachers’ allowance increasing to P5,000 from P3,500 next year is not enough to cover distance learning expenses.

FUTURE OF EDUCATION
Mr. Estrada said part of the burden on private schools is that they need to comply with government regulations setting online teaching standards which were set even before the pandemic. These rules were meant to deter “fly-by-night” operators from offering teaching services.

“Now, everyone needs to go into online and flexible learning. We should be allowed to transition smoothly, in a less regulated environment,” he said.

He said that the government required all schools to acquire learner management systems and to hire personnel available round the clock to address online complaints.

Despite the possibly contentious idea of the government supporting students in private education, COCOPEA is asking the government to provide tuition subsidies to keep schools alive, to the extent of invoking Article XIV of the Constitution, which “recognizes the complementary roles of public and private institutions in the educational system.”

As a practical matter, the DepEd’s Mr. Mateo said government support for private institutions will help decongest public schools. The government is not in principle averse to the idea of funding students going into private education — the DepEd itself maintains a program subsidizing students enrolling in private senior high schools.

“Assuming for the sake of argument there is a law that will allow us to support (private) elementary schools — the bigger question is do we have the money? Is Congress giving us sufficient funds?”

Ms. Castro said even online learning’s promise of, at minimum, saving students the trouble of commuting to school, is predicated on better access to devices and improved internet infrastructure.

On the private side of the fence, an underlying issue is the need for a policy environment that inspires confidence. Mr. Estrada said clarity is needed on how the government intends to regulate and support online learning going forward, which is seen as key to unlocking the investment needed to operate under the new constraints imposed by the pandemic.

“Doing online involves costs, WiFi capabilities,” he said. “So you need to have to have some certainty also.”

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