A public hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Local Government tackled a bill which seeks to expand the application of the proceeds of the Special Education Fund (SEF) tax to other needs of the public education system.

Filed by Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, Senate Bill No. 396, or “Expanding the purposes and application of the Special Education Fund”, provides for the expansion of the application of the additional one percent (1%) SEF tax to other items relating to education, such as the construction and repair of libraries, payment of salaries, allowances and other benefits of teaching and non-teaching personnel.

During his opening statement in the hearing held on Friday, June 19, Go reiterated the government’s “solemn task to ensure that our education system is made accessible to every Filipino so that they can reach their full potential and play a more productive role in nation-building.”

Go cited the fact that, unlike richer local government units, poorer ones depend heavily on the SEF to fund their public education needs. “LGUs may provide support to public schools and their students, chargeable to their SEF. However, not all LGUs are created equal. Hindi naman pantay-pantay ang IRA at kita ng lahat ng mga LGU. Kung maliit ang IRA, maliit din ang SEF.”

He also mentioned that “[s]ome of the richer LGUs do not rely on their SEF and can provide for public education services and support through their general fund.”

“Alam niyo, sa kakaikot ko po ng buong bansa, napapansin ko lang na hindi talaga pantay-pantay. May mga munisipyo, mga 4th class municipalities na kulang talaga ang kanilang pondo, ni notebook, ballpen o lapis ay hindi po nila kayang bumili,” said Go.

“Napaka-unfair po noon. Hirap na nga sila sa access, sa mga magagandang classroom o kumpletong kagamitan, mas lalo po silang…they were deprived po sa mga education materials, such as notebooks nga po, dahil di nila kayang bumili, iyon pong mga kanilang local government units,” he added.

While the SEF is accessible to poor LGUs, Go said that “the scope of the expenses for which the SEF may be spent is limited,” forcing these LGUs to “gamble on the use of the SEF for education-related matters”.

“Under the law, the SEF may be used only for the ‘operation and maintenance of public schools, construction and repair of school buildings, facilities and equipment, educational research, purchase of books and periodicals, and sports development’,” Go remarked.

“So, what happens is that some LGUs gamble on the use of the SEF for education-related matters which are not enumerated in the law,” explained Go, further saying that it is the poor LGUs that are hardest hit by this restriction.

For this purpose, Go filed SB 396 to expand the application of the proceeds of the SEF. “Sa tulong ng panukalang ito, mabibigyan na natin ng sapat na kakayahan ang mga LGU na mapunan ang pangangailangang pang-edukasyon ng kanilang mga nasasakupan, para di na nila kailangang umalis pa sa kanilang mga probinsya para lang makapag-aral.”

“Under this bill, it may now be used for, among others, payment of salaries and benefits of teaching and non-teaching personnel, competency trainings, and operation of alternative learning systems,” he added.

The Senator also said that “the flexibility afforded by this measure to LGUs will facilitate the country’s ongoing transition to the digital age, where there is a growing need to provide our students with modern tools to remain globally competitive.”

In light of the pandemic, Go also noted that the measure will “render the public education system more flexible to implement alternative modes of learning or blended learning.”

“It will likewise be very useful for LGUs in dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely strained local finances,” he said.

As for the long-term Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa Program of the government, Go envisions the bill to complement the public cause. “Alinsunod din po ito sa layunin ng Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa Program. Sa katunayan, maraming mga taga-probinsya ang dumadayo sa Metro Manila, Cebu, at Davao, kasi nalalaman nilang may mga libreng school supplies o hindi kaya naman libreng tuition fees.”

Go clarified, however, that the bill does not provide LGUs with more money, but flexibility to use the SEF.

“In return, what we ask from our LGUs is to ensure that every peso from the SEF counts and to make sure that the funds from the SEF are spent wisely for our children and the public,” he added.

He added that the goal of the education system should not stop at ensuring that students are enrolled. “Sa ngayon, libre na ang tuition fees. Pero ang layunin nito ay hindi lang para dumami ang pumapasok na estudyante kundi para dumami ang nakakatapos.”

“Maraming estudyante nga ang nakaka-enrol dahil libre na ang tuition pero wala naman silang mga notebook, uniform, sapatos, at gamit sa pag-aaral.”

“May kakulangan din sa pasahod, training at benepisyo para sa mga guro at empleyado ng mga paaralan,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) expressed its support to the measure during the virtual hearing. Quirino Governor and ULAP President, Dakila Carlo E. Cua said that flexibility is, indeed, what LGUs need to cope up with unpredictable situations such as pandemics.

“In behalf of ULAP, we’d like to thank our senators for teaching our LGUs. Tama po na ang kailangan sa SEF ay ang flexibility gaya ng sinabi ni Senator Bong Go,” Cua said.

Cua also requested for the government to consider providing a negative list, rather than a positive list, when deliberating the regulations for the SEF.

“Pagdating po sa SEF, sana wala nang positive list. Kung gusto ng konting regulation ng gobyerno, negative list na lang. Ang ibig sabihin, kung pwede po sabihin niyo na lang ang bawal, lahat ng hindi bawal pwede po para magkaroon ng creativity ang LGUs,” Cua mentioned.

Go then urged his fellow lawmakers to provide LGUs with the flexibility they need to ensure quality education for their constituents.

“Huwag na po natin itong ipagkait sa kanila. Huwag po nating ipagkait sa ating mga kabataan ang magandang buhay na naghihintay sa kanila sa tulong ng magandang edukasyon,” Go said.

“Nasa kamay natin ang kanilang kinabukasan. Ito po sana ang isa-puso at isip natin sa magiging talakayan natin ngayong araw na ito,” he ended.

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