To cope – to make do with what one has – has always been regarded by Filipinos as a virtue.  Coping belongs to the heroic culture of sharing, sacrifice, and resiliency that one finds in societies besieged by scarcity.  It is a tool of survival, a trait perfected in times of war, famine, and calamity. But, institutionalized as national policy, coping becomes an obstacle to planning, and a drag on the nation’s growth.

The classroom shortage issue that came to light at a recent Cabinet meeting is a sharp reminder of the perils of coping.  Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had summoned the media to Malacanang to witness how the government has prepared for the opening of the new school year.

Like a general in full control of the situation, she called on Dr. Fe Hidalgo, the acting Secretary of Education, to report on her department’s readiness.  It was Sec. Hidalgo’s misfortune that she could not adjust to the performative requirements of a media event.  She began by noting the persistent shortage of classrooms.  She was about to report on what her department planned to do to cope with the situation when Ms Arroyo interrupted her.  Raising her voice as if to drown the clarification that her visibly stunned Cabinet member was about to make, she reminded her (and the media) that the shortage was already being addressed.  How?  By double-shifting, and by recomputing classroom need in terms of a pupil-classroom ratio of 100 to 1.

“So what is the shortage now if we use what was agreed on last year?” Ms Arroyo asked Dr. Hidalgo after giving her a quick lecture on the new Math.  And she replies:  “We only have a few shortages right now.”  Satisfied, Ms Arroyo proceeded, partly addressing the media: “Exactly, exactly.  I mean we have to present our accomplishments on that….We’ve always been attacked every year for the shortages…,(but) we have been meeting the shortage.”

The truth of the matter is that the government has not been meeting the shortage by building enough classrooms.  It has been coping with the shortage by limiting class sessions to 4 hours, and using the available classrooms for a second and sometimes a third shift.  In a 3-shift arrangement, single-session classes are held from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.  Sometimes standard classrooms are partitioned into two, and each room is then made to accommodate anywhere from 45 to a hundred students.  Where this happens, even the teacher can hardly move.

Ironically, perhaps the worst place to be in as a public school pupil is Metro Manila itself. At the Commonwealth Elementary School, the world’s largest grade school (according to the Guinness Book of Records), 12,755 students undertake the business of learning in 85 classrooms.  To alleviate the congestion, the school’s ingenious teachers have turned every space in their building, including the toilets, into classrooms.  This is not unusual.  In San Diego Elementary School, also in Quezon City, where 5400 pupils must make do with 18 classrooms, teachers have been holding classes on the stairs and along fire exits.

It is an old problem that is not entirely ascribable to lack of public funds.  The problem is serious, but there is no sustained monitoring and evaluation of the measures that are taken from year to year. Last year, a television report showed a Metro Manila pupil on the first day of school. She was lugging a monobloc plastic chair and an umbrella on top of her school bag.  They did not have enough chairs at their school, and when it rained the roof leaked so badly they had to wear raincoats or open their umbrellas inside the classroom to avoid getting soaked.

Every year, like a ritual of collective expiation, the media dutifully report the urgency of the situation.  Nothing more is heard after the first day of school; every child gets enrolled and every school appears to cope.  But things actually get worse, because while the city population continues to grow, partly because of unchecked fertility and partly because of migration, the facilities remain the same.

Building maintenance is unheard of in many of these public schools. Some of them have been declared unsafe. And yet, the building of classrooms for the nation’s children has been a favored project of many private donors.  If private donations were just augmenting the sustained efforts of government, the shortage should not exist.  Unfortunately, in many instances, private initiative takes the place of government programs.  Public funds earmarked for school buildings are diverted to other uses, even as schools built by private donors are shamelessly claimed by and painted with the names of public officials.

The dressing-down that Sec. Hidalgo got from Ms Arroyo at the last Cabinet meeting may have caused her personal pain.  But it has yielded a desirable outcome – the restoration by the Senate of the one-billion-peso cut from the school-building program of the DepEd. The senators assumed that, like many other items in the 2006 proposed budget, the one for classrooms was overstated.  In fact, it had been understated.

It is the same with everything else our people have accepted as a way of life in this nation of failed leaders.  Unable to make both ends meet, they leave their families to earn a living abroad. Unable to earn enough to build a decent home, they are forced to live as squatters. Unable to afford health care, they turn to faith healers.  Unable to buy rice, they eat instant noodles.  Coping reflects the patience and ingenuity of victims.  It is not for government to claim it as an accomplishment.

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