From Private to Public — The Exodus of Students and Teachers Amid the Pandemic

In the Philippines, a quarter of a million students moved from private to public schools in 2020 and 2021 as many parents lost their jobs during the COVID public health crisis.

Nadine Chantalle V. Ponce, 22, was an up-and-coming third-year broadcasting student at the Colegio de San Lorenzo near the Philippine capital when it suddenly shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

‘We were all caught off guard,’ she said by telephone. ‘My brothers and I grew up in that school. Teachers there were like family, so it was tough for me to accept that it had to end that way.’ 

The institute was among the 425 private schools that have permanently closed since 2020. About half of their 21,000 private school students have transferred to public schools, where tuition is free.

St. Joseph Academy of San Jose, Northern Samar, Inc. in the Eastern Visayas Region has also shut down its kindergarten department due to lack of enrolment. 

A quarter-million students moved from private to public schools in 2020 and 2021, according to the Department of Education (DepEd), as many parents lost their jobs.

This seems to be the opposite of what’s happening in western countries like the United States, where many parents increasingly sought out, regardless of the price tag, independent schools that offered physical rather than remote classes as the coronavirus crisis raged on, CNBC reported last year.

Reports of significant academic learning loss in school districts underscored concerns about the toll that virtual learning has taken on education at every level. Private schools, which generally have larger campuses, smaller class sizes, and greater student autonomy, often demonstrated more flexibility when it came to reopening.

As a result, children in private education were able to attend school in person, alleviating the burden on their parents and, in many cases, allowing them to go to work or pursue employment opportunities from home.

Filipino students who enrolled this year rose to 28.04 million from 27.23 million last year, when physical classes were still disallowed.

The exodus of teachers from private to public schools, where the pay is said to be higher, has also spurred the closure of many independent schools, education specialist and school owner Elna Leah L. Fonacier commented. 

‘A large number of private school teachers have transferred to public schools because of the attractive salary offer, which is triple the price offered by small private schools,’ she said in a Facebook Messenger chat. 

According to her, large private schools offer an average monthly salary of PHP 18,000, while the smaller institutions pay PHP 8,000 to 12,000, compared with a starting salary of PHP 25,000 offered by government schools.

Private school closures could well have worsened the country’s unemployment rate during the pandemic.

Almost 2.7 million Filipinos were jobless in August 2022, 79,000 more than in July, though 1.2 million down from a year earlier, according to the local statistics agency.

Fonacier said private schools have also found it hard to comply with the safety requirements for face-to-face classes stipulated by the DepEd.

The DepEd said it would allow private schools to continue offering online classes beyond 2 November 2022, revising the earlier announcement that all schools are required to enforce five days of face-to-face classes by next month.

‘DepEd is cognizant of the current situation of the private sector due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—the amount of investment in online learning technologies, the development and institutionalisation of best practices on blended learning, and the unfortunate closure of small private schools because of losses,’ the department said in a statement.

School closures affect communities socially and economically, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Such disruptions worsen disparities within the education system and result in interrupted learning, poor nutrition, gaps in childcare, a rise in dropout rates and high economic costs, the organisation added.

According to a 2022 report by the World Bank, the Philippines has a learning poverty rate of 91% and a learning deprivation rate of 90.4%, among the highest in Southeast Asia. 

Private school closures have also limited parents and students’ access to the ‘distinct education services that they provide,’ University of the Philippines Diliman College of Education Dean Jerome T. Buenviaje said via email when questioned.

He pointed out that there were 47,144 public schools and 14,425 private schools before the pandemic. As of 2021, out of 2,418 higher education institutions, 1,734 were private, with 684 institutions under the Commission on Higher Education, he added.

The figures show that the quality of graduates joining the Philippine labour force is highly dependent on the private school sector, he said.

‘The closure of private schools means fewer graduates that can join the labour sector,’ Buenviaje said. ‘If this trend goes on, the government will have to establish more schools or further strengthen their existing programs, which would mean additional funding.’

Learning ‘trap’

Buenviaje also said it would take time for such changes to take place ‘while the demand for quality graduates joining the labour force continues.’ 

The government should work with stakeholders to save private schools from collapse because they play a vital role in the country’s education system, he said.

For us, it’s not just about the education, it’s the family that we’ve built inside the school.

Similarly, Fonacier commented that increasing teachers’ salaries could persuade them to stay. The state could also grant wage subsidies to private institutions.

According to Buenviaje, ‘Tax relief for private schools will never be enough, though it’s an initial reform to consider.’  

By law, private schools are eligible for a temporary 1% tax from July 2020 to June 2023, after which the rate will return to 10%.

‘To save private schools from collapse, there are existing policies abroad that support the sustainability of the private education sector through government funding,’ Buenviaje said. ‘These models can be reviewed and adopted if they are suitable in our context and existing laws.’

‘Congress can also pass a bill expanding the coverage of voucher programs for primary education and increase the voucher allocations for the tertiary level under the tertiary education subsidy fund or through other programs,’ Anthony Jose M. Tamayo, Chairman of the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations of the Philippines, said in an email.

‘Students will have the chance to go to their private schools of choice if the voucher system is expanded to the tertiary level,’ he said. It is also better if the college voucher system has fewer restrictions so that more students can go to private schools.

More students going to private schools could also mean savings for the state, Tamayo said. ‘They don’t have to build additional classrooms and private schools can help in decongesting public schools.’  

‘Expanding productive engagement between the government and private education sector can help in getting the country out of the low learning proficiency trap.’

Ponce, the third-year broadcasting student, said schools should be more transparent with parents and students about their financial situation.

‘Maybe we could have done something,’ she said. ‘For us, it’s not just about the education, it’s the family that we’ve built inside the school.’

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About the author

Arjay L. Balinbin

Arjay L. Balinbin is a Manila-based business journalist. He pursued a Master’s Degree in Journalism through the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung fellowship at the Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University. Arjay serves as Multimedia Editor at BusinessWorld Publishing Corporation, the Philippines’ oldest business newspaper. In his role, he oversees articles dedicated to micro, small, and mediumsized enterprises (MSMEs) and occasionally the corporate stories. His reporting also extends to areas such as publicly traded companies, start-ups, and government agencies within the technology, telecommunications, and transportation sectors. Arjay has covered events in Spain, Germany, Malaysia, and Singapore.

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