Sara Duterte

[OPINION] Positioning for 2028

Edilberto De Jesus
[OPINION] Positioning for 2028
'Sara Duterte's blank slate on education may be her biggest advantage'

An elected vice president always has the inside track to the presidency. The incumbent president can die; this has led to the promotion of Sergio Osmena, Elpidio Quirino, and Carlos Garcia. Or, in the case of Erap Estrada, could be driven from office, promoting Gloria Arroyo. The vice president’s edge became even sharper under a single-term presidency, even when representing a political party different from the president’s. Only the prosecution of corruption cases undermined the campaign of Jojo Binay.

Sara Duterte’s appointment as DepEd Secretary further fortified the vice presidential advantage for a 2028 presidential run. DepEd is a high-profile agency that controls the biggest government bureaucracy and often the biggest budget. That said, the post also exposes politicians to serious, potential risks. Six years attending meetings of ASEAN ministers of education underlined the danger of relying only on purely technocratic solutions to education issues. Having gone to schools themselves or sent children to schools, most everyone feels entitled to express their views on education problems and how they should be handled.

Sara will find a public deeply invested in education, represented by a large and broad constituency spanning all economic sectors, and now supported by informed advocates from church, business, and civil society. Second, the dimensions of the country’s learning crisis, documented by international assessment tests, aggravated by the pandemic, and experienced by the public are now well known. The success or failure of her intervention efforts will be obvious. Her most specific statement affecting education, her call for mandatory ROTC training for all students, did not address identified education priorities. Or military priorities; the defense department did not consider the proposal sustainable. Even Imee Marcos rejected the idea.

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ROTC excluded, her blank slate on education may be her biggest advantage. Congress has already called for the creation of an Oversight Committee on Education that would review and complete the work of the Committee on Education (EDCOM) established in 1990 by the Cory Aquino administration. The educational associations, together with Philippine Business for Education and its network, have been working with Congress to formulate for EDCOM II a common agenda for long-term educational reforms. At DepEd, Sara will play a leading role in this effort and with her considerable political clout can support the shared goals of Congress and civil society advocates.

Some of their objectives should appeal to Sara. Despite the decades-long advocacy for school-based management so that schools can get operational funds more quickly and use them for what they consider their urgent priorities, DepEd practice continues to be highly-centralized. The pandemic has demonstrated that a one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective and harmful. As a former mayor, Sara should welcome and support the call for a greater role in education for local government units and for the parents of schoolchildren.

Her Mindanao constituency and her own educational formation in the region should also make her sensitive and supportive to ongoing efforts for reviewing language policy in education. Mindanaons have to learn at least three languages: the mother tongue, Filipino, and English. Research has shown that children learn better when early education is delivered in the mother tongue. DepEd has accepted this as a policy and has prescribed the use of mother tongue for the first three grades of education. But effective policy implementation is a complex matter and has encountered problems in areas where multiple mother tongues are spoken by students and where teachers often lack sufficient training for their use in the classroom context. The issue requires review, corrective action, and sustained research on how to make the policy more effective.

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For too long now, we have ignored the problem of our language diversity in our desire to develop quickly widespread competence in the national language, while seeking to retain our early advantage in the learning of English. But English use and competence in the Philippines has declined, while the slower spread of English in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand has not prevented them from better education and economic performance. In Southeast Asia, apart from Singapore, the Philippines is the only country that does not administer the international assessment tests in the national language. Education experts note this as a factor in the dismal performance of Filipino students in the tests.

Sara can thus use the education portfolio to her advantage by supporting the ongoing work of education advocates in government and civil society. That said, the post also places her in some delicate, tight corners. How does she address the issue of historical revisionism, propagated by the Marcoses and abetted by her father? What would be her response to reports that elements of the military want to ban popularly written accounts accessible to the masses that discuss the Martial Law regime and its crimes? Or her stand on campus journalism? How does she handle the national commemoration of events like the declaration of Martial Law and the airport assassination of Ninoy Aquino?

The election campaign also raised the concern about the need to develop a more relevant and robust civic education program that would educate for Philippine democracy. Such a program would underline the rights and duties of citizens but also the limits on government officials and their accountabilities. She still owes the public disclosure and explanation of her SALN. What would be her stand on political dynasties and the evidence that it contributes to impunity, corruption, and poverty?

Historical revisionism was a political issue in the presidential campaign. Most schools rejected it, as an education issue that retarded the development of critical thinking among students, and a moral issue that propagated lies. The education sector looked for an Education President in 2010 and clearly favored Robredo in the 2022 elections; they will be vigilant in keeping watch on Sara at DepEd. But DepEd also gives Sara a promising platform to demonstrate her support for Education Nation – if she hopes to win the sector in the 2028 elections. –

Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.