Sara Duterte

How Sara Duterte led DepEd for 2 years

Bonz Magsambol

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How Sara Duterte led DepEd for 2 years

VICE PRESIDENT. File photo shows Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte addressing participants at the 2023 National Literacy Conference at the DepEd ECOTECH Center in Cebu City on October 12, 2023.

Jacqueline Hernandez/Rappler

Education advocates see Sara Duterte's resignation as an opportunity for President Marcos to appoint a qualified DepEd secretary who will start reforms in the country's learning system

On Wednesday, June 19, Vice President Sara Duterte made a decision that many had anticipated, given her family’s widening rift with the administration she served as a Cabinet secretary. She finally resigned as secretary of the Department of Education (DepEd) and vice chairperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

In her first and last press conference as education secretary, also on June 19, what was immediately noticeable was the difference in her appearance: her hair was swept away from her face rather than tucked behind the ears. She wore a girly blouse that deviated from her usual uniform-style clothes for public appearances. Sharp-eyed political observers noticed that her blouse was in the same muted blue shade as what former vice president Leni Robredo had worn when she announced her bid for the presidency.

Her prepared statement, which she read at the press conference, clocked over 10 minutes, mostly devoted to the topic earlier sent to the media: the state of basic education in the country and her key programs. It was in the last two minutes of her statement when she shared that she had sought an audience with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. earlier that day and tendered her resignation from her appointive government positions. (Malacañang announced it 15 minutes before her scheduled 3 pm press conference.)

Duterte delivered her statement as is, with no ad-libs. She spoke in an even, reportorial tone that did not change even when she announced her resignation as education secretary. Most Cabinet members stepping down from office often turn emotional as they deliver their final statement, but not Duterte, who looked relieved, as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

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Tough-talking DepEd chief

The public’s last look at Duterte as education secretary was different from the Cabinet official who red-tagged and talked tough on social media.

The Vice President was really not interested to be the education chief – her first choice was the defense portfolio. The two posts are polar opposites, but she accepted the position without any complaints, at least based on her public statements. Amid observations that she had been shortchanged, she said that she was grateful for the education portfolio.

Bringing her tough-talking leadership style to the DepEd, Duterte traded barbs with the country’s largest teachers’ group, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), and accused them of being a “lover of the useless ideologies” espoused by insurgent groups. (READ: Sara Duterte brings red-tagging to DepEd)

Her tall order of a mandatory return to face-to-face classes in 2022, when health experts said that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic was “in sight,” was criticized due to the lack of health protocols in place and the long-standing problem of inadequate school facilities. This didn’t discourage her though – a manifestation of what she wants, she gets.

In May 2023, DepEd officials linked to the messy laptop deal that Rappler investigated resigned from their positions, citing personal reasons. Insiders privy to the matter said that Duterte had asked them to resign. (READ: Negligence, corruption lead to fire sale of DepEd laptops)

Under her watch, the DepEd was allocated P150 million in confidential funds in 2023, an unprecedented amount for an agency whose mandate is not related to intelligence gathering nor national security. Issues surrounding the release and disposal of these funds came to light during the House hearings on the 2024 budget. Amid the controversy, Congress denied her request for confidential funds for 2024, a move influenced by Marcos’ cousin, House Speaker Martin Romualdez.

Duterte practically red-tagged critics of the DepEd’s confidential funds, but was later compelled to drop her request for the funds altogether, amid public backlash and a dip in her approval ratings. (READ: Sara Duterte gives up bid for confidential funds: Mere political strategy?)

Key decisions, programs

Without presenting evidence, Duterte in August 2023 ordered the removal of classroom decorations in all 47,000 public schools in the country, which supposedly aimed to help students concentrate on their lessons. This was met with backlash because education posters and charts were a staple in Philippine classrooms, especially in basic education.

During the launch of her flagship “MATATAG curriculum,” Duterte admitted that she only relied on education experts in updating the curriculum because she didn’t have an “education background.”

”I felt guilty because I’m making [Undersecretary Gina Gonong] stressed because I do not come from the education sector, I don’t have an education background, so I cannot review what they are doing,” she said. “I rely on their expertise and all the stakeholders who did the review.”

The MATATAG curriculum was supposed to be a response to the learning crisis in the Philippines. According to DepEd, this “decongests” foundational subjects to allow learners to focus on literacy and numeracy skills. However, an initial study done by the Second Congressional Commission on Education (EDCOM 2) and Philippine Institute of Development Studies revealed that there was “no statistical difference in the expected percentage of competencies covered in MATATAG pilot schools vs non-pilot schools.”

Duterte also began the review of the K to 12 curriculum amid growing clamor from the public to either revise it or scrap it. She had made a commitment to make the program “relevant to produce competent, job-ready, active, and responsible citizens.” The review was not yet done at the time of her resignation.

Criticism, praise

Despite criticism of her leadership and the continued poor assessment of Filipino students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a survey in December 2023 by pollster WR Numero showed that 57% of Filipinos believed she was doing a good job at DepEd.

While she was seen as a tough woman, Duterte’s maternal side was seen in her school visits, where she would read books to children, visit classrooms, and mingle with grade school students. In an event in Metro Manila in December 2022, she almost knelt on the floor to help tie the shoelaces of a child. While doing this, she asked the student about his message to his classmates for Christmas. (READ: The 2 sides of Sara Duterte)

She was criticized for taking on the role because she lacked the qualifications for a DepEd chief. But for her supporters, she was a perfect fit because Duterte was not only a longtime public servant, but also a mother. Sara has three young children – Stonefish, Sharky, and Stingray – with husband Manases “Mans”  Reyes Carpio. 

In her two years of delivering the annual education report since she assumed the DepEd position, Duterte had made big promises to improve the welfare of teachers. In 2024, she ordered the removal of administrative tasks from them so they could focus on teaching, a move that was lauded by education groups. She also ordered the implementation of overtime and overwork pay for teachers.

Earlier in June, the Philippine Business for Education urged Dutertet to set up the Teacher Education Council (TEC) to enhance teaching quality in the Philippines. Under Republic Act No. 11713 or the Excellence in Teacher Education Act, the education secretary is the chairperson of the TEC, which is tasked to set and mandate basic requirements for teachers’ education programs.

The law was signed in 2022, in the last few months of the presidency of her father, Rodrigo Duterte, to address the perennial crisis hounding the Philippine education system, yet it had yet to be set up during her watch. This made education sector observers wonder if she was even aware of her mandate and responsibilities in relation to the TEC.

Ironically, she relinquished her position at DepEd on the same day PISA released the results of its new test on creative thinking that placed the Philippines at the bottom four among 64 countries. (READ: Why Filipino students performed poorly in global learning assessments)

Education advocates see Duterte’s resignation as an opportunity for the President to appoint a qualified DepEd secretary who will start reforms to address the gargantuan problems in the country’s learning system. –

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.