The illusion and tragedy of our educational system

A week before school opening, our “live-out” domestic help requested her month’s salary in advance. She needs to pay for the school uniforms and other school expenses for her three children, she said. I can’t imagine where she’ll get money for her family’s food that month. I guess she will be borrowing from friends or from the friendly neighborhood “5-6” usurer.

She has been doing this for the last three years since we contracted her, and as far as I can remember, all our house helpers have always borrowed around this time of the year for their children’s expenses. While tuition in public school is free, most of the other expenses for the students are not, including the uniforms, school supplies, lunch money, and transport fare.

Next to food and housing, schooling is the biggest expense for the Filipino poor. It is such a struggle that many of them even ask their children to drop out at some point in primary school—about half of those who enter elementary, according to education department surveys.

It’s very sad, as it means that our poor, their children, and their children’s children are condemned to remain poor under our inequitable system.

For the poor, providing for the education of their children makes up the sole meaning of their lives. They believe that if only they could have a child “na nakapag-kolehiyo” (one who has been to college) they and the rest of their family would be able to live a life out of poverty.
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Unfortunately, this is an illusion. Ask your domestic help or any poor people you know: their parents and grandparents, as far back as they can remember, have been poor.

Today, about 21 million kids from kindergarten, grade school, to high school will rush out to their schools with the dreams of their parents on their back. Some will make it, by dint of luck and hard work. Most, however, are consigned to the fate that goes with an economic and social system that favors the moneyed class.

Passion for education
The Filipinos’ passion to get their children educated is a noble one, at the very least the rational response to an underdeveloped, overpopulated capitalist economy where the laborer’s wage is a commodity, which means that the surplus of laborers reduces that commodity’s price.

For the poor, and for our nation, this is a tragedy. Education for all is an illusion even in, or because of, a capitalist system.

Indeed, two surprise bestsellers in the US, and using mountains of data, Capitalism in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty and The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark, have demolished the myths of meritocracy and social mobility under capitalism even in the richest nations.

How much worse it is in such a country such as ours, which has been in the tight grip of a rapacious oligarchy that pays so little taxes that the state can’t fully subsidize the poor people’s education?

I extracted data from National Statistics Office’s 2009 Family Income and Expenditures Survey (FIES), the latest that had information on the educational backgrounds of the head of families by income class. I then made the assumption that this predicts the educational level a member of one of our three main socio-economic classes can attain.

That is, it could show the chances of completing school for the children of the poor classes, in contrast to children of the elite.

The class divisions I have constructed are admittedly crude, as our National Census Office has not changed its stratification method since the 1970s, so that the people in the richest stratum are those who earn annual incomes of just P250,000 and more. This means then that a monthly salary of P21,000 – which could be the salary of a clerk in a Makati company–makes the clerk belong to the richest stratum.

Thus, NSO data allows us only to divide Philippine families into three: The poorest or families with a monthly income of less than P8,000, which make up 35% of the population; the poor-to-middle class, 41% of the population or those who earn more than P8,000 but less than P20,000 a month, and the middle-to-upper class or those with income of more than P20,000.

The last class make up 24% of the population, although using data from the 2003 FIES, those earning more than P42,000 a month make up 2% percent of total population, or the real upper class, the elite in our society.

Based on these data, it would be a herculean effort bordering on a miracle for our poor domestic help to get her children to finish college.

Only 1 will finish college
Among the poor, only 1.3 % finished college. An additional 4.5% had gone to college but didn’t finish, as in the case of my domestic help.

The overwhelming majority of the poor, or 94% only have education at the high school level and below, with only 24% finishing elementary.

Translate my calculation to chances for my house-help’s children finishing college, and it’s 1 out of a hundred.

My household help actually has already beaten the odds by having a child in college now. The figures would indicate that the chances are 94 out of 100 that a poor Filipino finishes only high school.

The obstacles are nearly insurmountable. Without money to buy uniforms and schools supplies, the poor parents would probably just give up along the way. The child, if he is lucky, will enter the informal work force, such as helping in the farm or tending a sari-sari store in the slums.

It has been a vicious cycle. A parent in one generation can’t get out of poverty since he doesn’t have the qualifications a college education could give. But he himself cannot provide his children a college education.

Contrast this with the situation in other countries where the government subsidizes the schooling of all underprivileged children, from primary education to high school (and some, up to college), at roughly the same quality as those provided in schools for the children of the rich.

UP boasts that anybody can enroll there as long as the student passes its qualifying exams. But how can a poor boy who could study only in the elementary and high schools in a far-flung village in Samar have the mental skills and knowledge of somebody who studied at P200, 000-per year La Salle or Ateneo? The UP system of tuition fees even subsidizes the children of the rich, even the billionaires who study there (see my column “Stop subsidizing the rich at UP”, Manila Times, March 26, 2013.)

Our educational system therefore ensures that the millions who are poor continue to be poor through the generations. Yet at the same time, it creates a working class with a level of education capitalists require, so much so that we have been trying to convince foreign investors that the country is an ideal place to build factories because we have an English-speaking working force.

Within the Marxist and even the school of sociology called structural functionalism,  that situation isn’t at all a surprise.

With Philippine unemployment at 7.5% or about 3 million individuals, there is no need after all, no pressure for the state to bring the education of the working class to college levels. Where would those with college education find jobs anyway, other than overseas employment? That level of the unemployed working class, in fact, is a boon for capitalist as it means more supply of laborers than the demand for them, which translates to low wages.

Based on a March 2012 Department of Education briefing and on 2008 Commission on Higher Education data, and my analysis of the FIES 2009 survey, the reality of our educational system is as follows:

Out of 100 who enter Grade 1:

51 finish, and enroll in high school; the 49 who drop out will make up the vast army of poor farmers, unskilled laborers, domestic help, and the unemployed.

43 complete high school, with eight dropping out.

23 enter college; the 8 who dropped out of high school and the 20 who didn’t enter college will be, if they’re lucky, the blue- and white-collar workers, clerks and other office staff.

14 graduate, with just 1 from the poor. The 9 who don’t graduate would be lucky if they can run a micro-business, work as a service crew, become an SM saleslady, or the most popular option now, go abroad to be an OFW.

A college degree is an asset, a critical one. Our capitalist system gives this privilege almost entirely to the elite, perpetuating its assets and power. The few from the poor who do attain an education provide the illusion that it is possible to cross the class divide. But in the end, judging by the numbers, it is a myth, to keep the masses in their places.

Corruption, pork barrel scams, and government inefficiency—these only scratch the surface of our country’s quagmire.