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Teachers press Duterte on pay hike: ‘We are clinging to a knife’s edge’

‘We are clinging to a knife’s edge’
Teachers press Duterte on pay hike

LIFE LESSONS Grade 9 Filipino teacher Solita Daz prepares her lesson plan amid clutter in her cramped apartment on the fourth floor of a building in Barrio Menu in Tondo, Manila, which she shares with her husband and son. —RICHARD A. REYES

MANILA, Philippines — Solita Daz teaches Filipino, but she has long been grappling with hard math.

Daz is paid P22,938 — on paper. Mandatory deductions — taxes, premiums, outstanding loans to public and private lenders — shred the amount to a skeletal P5,600, or only slightly above the minimum take-home pay mandated by law.

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Almost half of what remains is spent on electricity and water bills. The rest, P2,900, goes to everything else she and her family need — a financial juggling act where buying the groceries means forgoing a medical checkup, which at any rate she has gone for years without.

“We are clinging to a knife’s edge,” said Daz, who teaches Grade 9 at Raja Soliman Science and Technology High School in Binondo, Manila. “At this point, even a sliver of hope that our salaries might increase is a big thing.”

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President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies have ginned up this hope at least nine times since 2015, during the presidential election campaign. But those proclamations have been promptly and forcefully tempered by his economic managers.

The result is the preservation of a status quo that has trapped an estimated 75 percent of public school teachers in debt — by at least P300 billion, according to the Department of Education (DepEd) — and frayed the fabric of the Philippine education system.

The latest data obtained by the Inquirer from the DepEd showed that teachers owed P157.4 billion to the Government Service Insurance System alone, up by more than P30 billion from the last publicized figure in 2017.

Teachers’ salaries have been increased at a staggeringly lower rate compared to those of other similarly trained professionals in the government, intensifying a paradox: Education receives the largest share of the national budget, but those tasked to administer it largely remain an afterthought.

“There would be no good lawyers, doctors, or soldiers without teachers,” said Jackson Balabac, who teaches economics at Quezon City Science High School. “We’re not asking for too much, only pay that matches our efforts.”

“The youth are the hope of our country,” he added. “But who trains them? Teachers.”

EO 201

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Since 2016, teachers have received a minimal increase annually under Executive Order No. 201 signed by then President Benigno Aquino III. The measure raised the salaries of all government workers in four tranches, the last of which was released this year.

But the benefits were lopsided. Before EO 201, an entry-level teacher received P18,549, compared to P20,754 now—a raise of 11.9 percent. The President, meanwhile, gained an increase of 233 percent in salary, and lawmakers, 186 percent.

“EO 201 gave to those who already had more, and less to those already receiving less,” said Cristina Manalo, head of the Philippine Public School Teachers Association’s Metro Manila chapter. “Teachers’ take-home pay cannot even take them home.”

According to the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), the cumulative inflation rate of 9.4 percent between 2015 and 2018 meant that the real value of teachers’ current salary is P18,282, or even less than what they started with before EO 201.

Utility workers in the Philippine National Police are paid more than teachers, although the teachers are licensed professionals. Overseas domestic helpers are compensated better, and work with far fewer children than public school teachers, who bear the brunt of perennially large class sizes.

Daz has been teaching for 35 years, but she receives only about P2,000 more than an entry-level teacher. In two years, she will retire, facing the prospect of deep cuts to her pension to pay off P400,000 in outstanding loans, most of which are for her son’s tuition.

In 2016, the DepEd said 26,000 teachers received no retirement benefits due to loans. This reality has forced elderly and ailing teachers to find other work after retiring just to sustain their needs, said ACT secretary general Raymond Basilio.

Flip-flopping

The President has repeatedly promised a wage increase for teachers, but the contours of his promise are varied and often contradictory.

During the election campaign, he said at one point that he would double their pay. His then running mate, now Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, pledged a P10,000 increase.

The President acted swiftly when he came to power, but on a different vow — doubling the salaries of the police and military. He assured teachers in July 2016 that they would be next.

But the next time he even mentioned teachers’ pay in a speech was almost two years later, in May 2018, at an event for school principals in Davao City — and it was to dole a bittersweet assurance: “Your salaries are next. But [they] can’t be doubled. It’s really not possible.”

The flip-flopping has persisted. On Jan. 10, he said at the groundbreaking of a school in Bulacan province that teachers could “choose the date” for a dialogue on a raise, which he would finally act on “this year.” His spokesperson gave an even tighter time frame: within three months.

That was five months ago.

The last time the President broached the topic publicly was at a campaign rally in Cebu City on Feb. 24. He again told teachers their pay would be “doubled just like the police.” But: “Just wait a little because we don’t have the budget for that yet.”

All it takes

“If you are sincere in what you’re saying, all it takes is one EO,” Basilio said. “Put it in writing. Sign it. Until we have something to withdraw from an ATM, we won’t believe it.”

ACT, the government-accredited negotiating body for public school teachers, points out that its definition of a “substantial salary increase” is even less than what the President has promised. For years now, it has called for entry-level teachers to receive P30,000 a month.

This is what a family of five needs to make ends meet, said ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro. Her estimate is conservative compared to that of Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, who said in June that P42,000 was required for a family to live above the poverty line.

Around 70 percent of public school teachers are “Teacher I” or entry-level, Castro said. Teachers have to wait 20 years for an automatic promotion. They may apply for promotion earlier, but the cost of the requirements, like seminars or higher studies, could be forbidding.

Helene Dimaukom, a special education (SPED) teacher in Cotabato City, was finally promoted to Master Teacher I, three steps above entry level, in 2016—almost 30 years after she started. A master teacher’s salary is the only “respectable” one, she said, but it comes with an asterisk.

“What is not considered is that before being promoted to master teacher, we are already suffocating in debt,” Dimaukom said. “Even if a teacher wants to retire or transfer work, the debt makes it impossible. It’s their bondage.”

Sachet-sized pay

Congress could do what the President hasn’t, but legislative efforts have atrophied. In 2010, ACT Teachers filed House Bill No. 7211 setting a P30,000 base pay for teachers and raising their personal economic relief allowance, which had been frozen at P2,000 for 13 years, to P5,000.

In 2016 Sen. Sonny Angara filed Senate Bill No. 135, which sets an ambitious entry-level wage of P42,099. But neither bill has moved an inch, and both seem destined to die at the committee level by the time Congress adjourns this month.

“Teachers are receiving sachet-sized pay,” Manalo said. “When they head to the market, all they can afford are sachets, too. Sachets of dried fish, soap, toothpaste. Where’s the decent living?”

Teachers’ financial woes are often complicated by their fierce instinct to protect their students.

Daz said she often had 50 children at the start of the school year, and sometimes only 25 at its close. This, she said, was the reality of the school’s backdrop — communities with houses prone to demolition or fire, and parents who felt their kids would be of more use if they worked instead.

“When I see potential in students, just to keep them coming to school, I give them P20 or so every day,” she said. “I ask the canteen to feed them and just charge [their meals] to me.”

Much of teachers’ debt is also due to classroom expenses that come from their own pockets — chalk, pens, laptops, projectors, printers, speakers, broadband, decorations. A “chalk allowance” is given to teachers for this purpose, but it’s P3,500 and meant to last a whole year.

When Dimaukom began teaching at Canizares National High School, there was no classroom conducive to learning for students who were hard of hearing or had cerebral palsy. So she transformed part of her house, which was beside the school, into a makeshift SPED room.

“Our house turned into a mini social welfare department,” she said. They would congregate around noon, and she recalled the heartbreak of seeing some students bring rice with soy sauce for lunch. “So whatever we had in the house, we shared with them.”

Double standard

While a number of lawmakers and executives appear to agree that public school teachers are not being given their due, the bone of contention is the price tag that a wage increase would entail. At 800,000, public school teachers make up the largest chunk of the government bureaucracy.

Basilio said the increase ACT was seeking would cost roughly P300 billion for the first year — a figure that would make a budget hawk blush. But advocates insist there is sufficient funding.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue can intensify its collection of taxes, a large share of which is estimated to be lost to corruption or noncollection, Castro said. Basilio urged the redirection of funds generated by the tax reform law or devoured by the President’s infrastructure program.

“The double standard is clear,” he said. “When we talk about raising pay for public school teachers, suddenly there’s a need for feasibility studies and sources of funding. But there are no concerns of that sort when pay for the police and military was increased.”

Education Undersecretary for Finance Annalyn Sevilla said the fate of any salary increase would rest in the hands of the economic sector, particularly the finance and budget departments. Education Secretary Leonor Briones has generally taken a hands-off stance on the issue.

Before tackling a pay increase, said Sevilla, the DepEd was focused on implementing the benefits mandated by the 1966 Magna Carta for Public School Teachers, such as ensuring free medical exams and dental health protection and easing teachers’ formidable workloads.

“We’ve been trying to create more nonteaching positions,” she said. “The work of teachers keeps piling up, and a lot of it has nothing to do with teaching, but more of auxiliary functions.”

16-hour workday

Basilio said the roles of clerk, guidance counselor, administrative assistant and librarian, to list just a few, were part of already grueling teaching tasks.

“Teachers work 16 hours,” he said. “After teaching, they work on lesson plans, check papers, prepare visual aids. By the time they get home, they aren’t even able to ask their own kids, ‘How are your studies? Is there something I can help you understand?’”

Dimaukom, as SPED teacher, has grown accustomed to unique challenges. Having learned how to handle her students better than their parents can, she would get calls for help from distressed mothers late at night.

“They would call at 10 p.m. asking me to come to their house,” she said. “Wherever the kids were, I would come to the rescue. The amount we receive doesn’t compensate for what we do.”

Daz’s classes end at 6 p.m., but she doesn’t get home until after 9 p.m. Then she must do housework, like the laundry, if she could afford to buy soap that day. She wants to ask her son about his day but is at times too tired even for that. This is how it has been for 35 years, she said.

Since she was 13, Daz knew she wanted to be a teacher. She installed an improvised blackboard at home, made up class records and mimicked the mannerisms of her favorite teachers.

“I stayed [in this job] because teaching was my dream, my passion, my bread and butter,” she said.

But many have flown, imperiling a generation of would-be teachers as well as the students that will be left behind.

“For as long as we cannot offer a palatable financial package to teachers, they will be away teaching the future leaders of other countries,” Manalo said.

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TAGS: DepEd, Public School Teachers, Solita Daz, teachers' salaries
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