21 May 2013

Mayor Robredo told me he nearly fell off his chair when I told him that Ford Foundation would give him a grant to reinvent local school boards in the Philippines. He must have remembered that years ago, I told him never to expect any help from me as Undersecretary in the Department of Finance. But that was told in jest as it was rare for me to encounter dissenting views when I was in government. Fast forward, I left government and was a Program Officer of the Ford Foundation. We wanted to help stop the deteriorating quality of basic education in the Philippines. Our approach was for local governments to lead their communities to want and lead the change. There was no better person to think through and demonstrate the processes than the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, Jesse M. Robredo, Mayor of Naga City. He was no ordinary thinker. He made what was ideal, real.

The rest was history. Mayor Jesse showed us that how an engaged community can increase achievement levels in basic education. The Robredo model was awarded as outstanding in local governance by Galing Pook Foundation. It has inspired local governments all over the country to lead the turnaround in basic education. Mayor Robredos initiative was also shared with the Public Education Network, a coalition of education reformists in the United States. Local governments in the United States have taken a keen interest in arresting dropouts, in improving the quality of teachers, and making sure that their children learn in schools.

To help scale up a community-based approach in strengthening basic education, Synergeia manualized the Robredo model. But it would do Mayor Robredo injustice if I would do a rehash of what Synergeia wrote years ago. Mayor Jesse brought with him fresh insights every time. He was constantly moving us to do things in better ways. That was why even if I had listened to him so many times, I always listened with full attention every time he presented his reinvention model. He had the gift of making everything brand new.

And so, I viewed a video of how he exhorted the Mayors from ARMM in 2011 to embrace the task of getting children to school and ensure that they are marunong. Ang dulo, dapat makatapos ang bawat bata at marunong siya. (The bottomline is that each child should complete schooling and that he is with intelligence.) Unexpectedly, I found myself crying and feeling that we lost him too soon. But I write this piece hoping that his life would inspire many more young idealists to continue the work that he began in education.

Mayor Robredo was like many other Mayors in 2000. He had the impression that the children from Naga City were doing well because school officials told him they ranked first in the region with a mean performance score (mps) of 46 percent. It was only until he asked the Superintendent what a 46 percent mps meant. He was literally floored when he heard that out of 100 questions, the children could only answer 46 questions correctly. He felt a mixture of outrage, embarrassment, and pity. He thought that this outrage should be shared by the community. He transformed social anger into action. He went from school to school and gathered parents, teachers, barangay officials, and NGOs, asking them, Do you know that the children from Naga can only answer 4 out of 10 questions correctly in the national achievement test? That was the first time that parents confronted how bad the quality of public education had become. Like the Mayor, they thought everything was going well because all they saw was the grade of 87 percent on the cards their children brought home. Mayor Robredo made them realize that Nagas children were the first among the poor performers. Number one pala tayo sa mahihina.

The first question that Mayor Jesse raised before the ARMM Mayors was: Handa ba ninyong pangunahan ang pagsasaayos ng edukasyon? (Are you ready to accept the responsibility of putting education into order?). It was a difficult question because the delivery of education remains a responsibility of the national government. But Mayor Jesse is a Filipino who did not leave things as they were simply because they were not his responsibility. He felt a calling to improve situations. He never passed on the blame to another person and instead asked what can be done so that things would be better. Mayor Robredo paused and waited for the answer from his audience. If your answer is no, then there is no sense continuing with this talk.

Mayor Jesse exhorted the Mayors to use their power to engage the community in improving education. Gamitin ninyo ang inyong kapangyarihang isama ang mamamayan. He emphasized that the leadership of the Local Chief Executive is of crucial importance in reforming education. (Malaking bagay na kasama si Mayor.)

Reforming Education School by School. But how can the Mayors put a major program into action? Mayor Jesse realized that the common pitfall of government officials is putting ideas into action. Start by doing the reform school by school. Paisa-isa, he advised. His great gift was translating reform programs into small and doable tasks. He met the communities in all the schools in what he termed as education summit and told the participants in simple terms that the education of their children is in bad shape. Three out of 10 children do not complete grade six. In ARRM, 7 out of 10 children drop out of school before graduation. He cited the statistics of Prof. Winnie Monsod that 4 out of 5 poor families are headed by individuals who did not complete elementary education. There is no way by which we can overcome the problem of poverty unless we are able to send all our children to school. And realizing that Mayors are political creatures, Isama na rin ninyo ang kampanya dito. (Make the education summit as part of your politics).

Setting Standards and Defining Roles. The next step is to set standards through which the effort of the community would be measured. Mayor Robredo was a great advocate of measuring performance. One of his favorite terms is sukat (measure). The community members agree on the targets with which they will measure their success. By how much will the participation rate, completion rate, and achievement levels increase?

Then, the next question is who will be accountable? In the case of Naga City, the community supplied the inputs that can influence learning which the DepEd could not provide. Barangay officials took charge of security of children and schools. They served as lookouts for children who were dropping out. Members of the Kabataang Baranggay contributed to the provision of textbooks. And long before the Pantawid Pamilya” became a national program, Mayor Robredo already instituted an incentive system for indigent parents to send their children to school. For every day that the child was in school, the child got one ganta of rice or two cavans of rice for a perfect attendance during the school year. His mother also got a premium for attending PTA meetings. She took home another ganta of rice. I will not prescribe any template, Mayor Robredo said. You are in the best position to design your own templates because you understand your own terrain and can introduce the needed innovations. He cited another example where children in a school that was located at the foot of Mt. Isarog did not go back to school after lunch because of the distance between their homes and the school. The city started a feeding program to keep the children in school.

Education is a community effort. The life of Mayor Robredo is a story on empowerment. He believed that the formulation of policies should come as a mandate from citizens. Ang patakaran, kailangang resulta ng isang kasunduan. (Policies should be built on consensus). He had the gift of listening. And so it was that the work program and budget of the Local School Board (LSB) in Naga city were products of consultation and community consensus. He asked parents how they would like the Special Education Fund to be spent. They voted unanimously to provide children with workbooks, give teachers regular training, and to fund research on how children can learn better. Since taxes are paid by the citizens, they should be part of the decision-making on how taxes should be spent. He translated this belief into a national program when he became Secretary of Interior and Local Governments. One of the conditions for LGUs to obtain a Seal of Good Housekeeping is transparency on how public funds are spent.

Reinventing Local School Boards. Mayor Robredo believed that School Boards are the best vehicles to lead the attainment of a 100 percent participation and completion rates of children. But, they have to perform their responsibilities under the Local Government Code and much, much more. First, School Boards are tasked to disburse the SEF, but they cannot disburse what they do not have. So, Mayors with the help of LSBs must ensure that the SEF is collected and spent well. Then, using the SEF budget as the basis, School Boards can serve as the Performance officers of the DepEd and hold teachers, principals, parents, and village officials to be accountable in seeing to it that children attend school and learn. The Naga City School Board pays special attention to outcomes and tracks accomplishments of education targets every year. In addition, the Mayor, who has the expertise and power to mobilize resources, leads the effort in raising more resources for education. The School Board involves opinion makers in the city as non-voting members: representatives from the business sector, from civil society, and from private academic institutions. From a nominal body, the Naga City School Board has evolved into a leader and trailblazer. It has mandated that all applicants for admission to the public high school should take a reading test, and poor readers have to take remedial lessons. PTA meetings cannot include fund raising as an agenda in their first meeting.

The Mayor ended his presentation with a firm belief that the success of the Philippines will depend on how well local governments serve their constituents. Huhusay ang bansa kung mahuhusay ang pamahalaang lokal. And as a farewell note, he said, Hindi ito pang-mabilisan, kailangang pagtiyagaan. (The improvement of education cannot be done in one stroke. It is the product of patient work.) And as if he had a foreboding of his future, he said, What is important is for people to remember that you started the change. (Ang mahalaga ay maalalang ikaw ang nag-umpisa.)

Very well said, Mayor Robredo. We will always remember you as the Mayor who Reinvented Local School Boards and made equal access to basic education the priority of local governments.

2. Mayor Jesse Robredos last post in government was Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Governments but to Synergeia, he is dearly remembered as Mayor Jesse.
3. Taking this cue from Mayor Jesse, Synergeia makes the yes response of the Local Chief Executive as a basic indicator that the LGU is ready for a partnership.

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