‘No child left behind’ is DepEd’s battle cry. But why is there no allocated budget for SPED? - SCOUT

OCTOBER 27, 2022

This article has been updated to specify that the 439,000 learners with disabilities refer to the SPED program beneficiaries and is not the total number of learners with disabilities in the country.

Four years ago, I volunteered at a special child care facility alongside my friends. We would prep afternoon snacks with the kids, play local street games together, and help them with their lessons. For a moment, it felt like we were dealing with regular children. It was fun and easy… until it wasn’t.

One day, a 10-year-old child with autism approached me. Erica, not her real name, suddenly grabbed the end of my sleeve, but wouldn’t say a word. She looked like she was two minutes away from bursting into tears while persistently hitting her head with the storybook we gave her about an hour ago. My first instinct was to put my hand between her head and the book, but she ran off before I could do it.

Desperate to know what the problem was, I talked to one of the childcare workers. It was apparently a habit Erica picked up when she couldn’t read or comprehend difficult words or when she had trouble counting or naming colors. She was eager to learn, but would resort to harmful coping mechanisms if things didn’t go her way. There would be times when she would hide under the table and refuse to eat or scratch her skin until it was sore. The saddest part? She has never consulted with a specialist due to money issues.

Looking back on this experience, I can’t help but wonder if learners with disabilities are included in the Department of Education’s (DepEd) “no student left behind” policy. Because if they were, the special needs of these children would be given appropriate attention. Barriers to their learning would be addressed so they could become successful learners.

But what did happen? The special education (SPED) program received zero budget in the 2023 National Expenditure Program (NEP). And to make matters worse, it seems that nobody wants to be held accountable for it. 

DepEd vs. DBM: Who’s really at fault?

DepEd disclosed in a statement on Sept. 19 that it proposed a P532-million budget for SPED in 2023. However, it was scrapped by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) despite its “earnest efforts to advocate for our learners with special needs.”

“This is a recurring circumstance every year, and DepEd is not at a loss because we always work with members of Congress to find other ways to fund DepEd programs,” read the statement. 

DepEd spokesperson Michael Poa said that the agency is eyeing “internal adjustments” to existing resources to support the program. “According to our finance strand, for [fiscal year] 2021, no amount was allotted for SPED under NEP, but was eventually funded under [the General Appropriations Act] i.e. P329 million,” wrote Poa in a Viber message.

But if DepEd had to look for other ways to obtain funds for SPED, doesn’t this imply that it is not a priority of the department?

Meanwhile, DBM justified its decision to slash the proposed budget by saying that “no sufficient documentation” was provided such as details of the proposed amount, parameters or basis of computations, and the status of ongoing conversion and establishment of Inclusive Learning Resource Centers (ILRCs). The department also cited that the SPED budget for 2022 is underutilized, with only a 1.13% obligation rate or P6.35 million of P560.2 million allocation.

And honestly, this justification makes sense. It’s just ironic that the inclusion of P150 million in confidential funds for DepEd is being debated but is on the table, while the budget for one of the most vulnerable sectors needed to meet so many requirements before getting OK’d.

Not the first time

DepEd wasn’t lying when it said that this has been a “recurring circumstance” every year. In 2019, DBM rejected the proposed SPED budget worth P562 million, according to a Rappler report. 

More than the zero-budget situation, though, I’m concerned about the fact that the 2022 fund was inadequately used. 

In 2020, the program was given P300 million for SPED equipment procurement under the General Appropriations Act, but was later on reallocated to Bayanihan 1 for the COVID-19 response. That same year, then Chair of the Senate Committee on Basic Education Sherwin Gatchalian confirmed that DBM “totally slashed” SPED funds in the 2021 NEP. Now, brace yourselves as we’ll likely enter a similar predicament in 2023.

More than the zero-budget situation, though, I’m concerned about the fact that the 2022 fund was inadequately used. 

I’ve encountered a lot of SPED educators and learners with disabilities who have been struggling over the past couple of years we’re in a pandemic. In fact, according to DepEd data, the number of enrollees with disabilities dropped from 360,879 in 2019 to 111,521 in 2020 to 93,895 in 2021.

By these numbers alone, one can conclude that they needed extensive support—and DepEd had more than half a billion pesos in its hands to provide for their needs. Spending could have come in the form of ILRCs, assistive and mobility technology such as braille and hearing aids, voice-activated devices, and books with large prints, among others. Still, the budget ended up being underutilized.

Learners with disabilities shouldn’t be alienated

DepEd doesn’t have to look too far for how it can best use SPED funds. According to its very own DepEd Order No. 44, s. 2021 or the “Policy Guidelines on the Provision of Educational Programs and Services for Learners with Disabilities in the K to 12 Basic Education Program,” learners with disabilities would need additional and/or modified learning resources catering to their unique needs. It is also generally ideal for at least 50% of their activities to be conducted in general education classrooms.

But how exactly will this be achieved?

As per the order, it is “imperative” for the department to reinforce its strategies to provide learners with disabilities with “appropriate and relevant educational interventions.” 

Everything sounds good on paper. But let’s face facts: Almost a year after these policy guidelines were issued, only a few—if not none at all—were implemented.

The state should prioritize the provision of educational assistance (scholarships, financial aid, subsidies, and other incentives) and the installation of access facilities (ramps, railings, tactile flooring, and accessible toilets) in buildings, institutions, and other public utilities.

The regional and school division offices, on the other hand, should be responsible for monitoring the establishment and legislation of ILRCs and ensuring that the existing standalone SPED centers cease operation or revert to inclusive regular schools starting SY 2021.

SPED teachers should coordinate with Gen Ed teachers in developing and implementing individualized education plans (IEPs), a.k.a. programs designed to ensure that learners with disabilities meet their needs and learning goals through specialized instruction and services. To guarantee effectiveness, IEPs should be crafted based on the inputs of their family and a multidisciplinary team composed of pediatricians, therapists, developmental psychologists, and registered guidance counselors, among others.

Schools should have a resource room for instructional interventions, therapy services, or tutorial sessions and/or an assessment area for educational placement and referral. This way, learners with disabilities can freely interact with their Gen Ed peers while still having their needs met.

And as ironic as it may sound, the same DepEd Order also “obligates” the national government to allocate funds for the “effective implementation” of the SPED program.

Everything sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? But let’s face facts: Almost a year after these policy guidelines were issued, only a few—if not none at all—were implemented.

Make inclusive education a priority

If the government is genuinely committed to pursuing an inclusive education system, it should start making fiscal sanity a prime concern.

As of 2020, around 439,000 learners with disabilities in the country were being supported by the SPED program. Potentially millions more are outside of its assistance. Like any student, they deserve to have their needs met so they can lead the lives they want and fulfill their dreams. Every single learner, especially the marginalized, should be provided with a proper learning environment.

While DBM already confirmed that the remaining SPED budget from 2022 can still be exhausted until Dec. 31, 2023—which I hope DepEd would utilize appropriately this time—it would be better to dedicate an official budget for the program in the succeeding years.

The lack of SPED funds could not only impede the progress of strengthening learners with disabilities’ access to resources and services, it could also disrupt the implementation of inclusive education policies. Regardless of how many bills are passed to ensure that learners with disabilities have a safe space in schools, these will never materialize if there’s no budget to back them up.

If the government is genuinely committed to pursuing an inclusive education system, it should start making fiscal sanity a prime concern. The future of our nation depends on our children and it’s the state’s duty to protect them from things that could jeopardize their success.

It is worth every cent of our tax money if children with special needs genuinely get easier access to basic education. But as long as there’s no proper budget allocated for their needs, they will constantly be undermined no matter how many times we cry “no child left behind.”

Read more:

Drop that “lazy students” narrative; these kids know what they’re fighting for

Making English the medium of instruction doesn’t necessarily equate to quality education

Why Kabataan Partylist’s Sarah Elago defends the #LeaveNoStudentBehind movement

Art by Yel Sayo

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