DO today’s classrooms still work as escape hatches from penury?

“Parents would pawn their lives for children’s schooling,” a proverb says. For good reason. “Poverty incidence falls by three percent for every one percent improvement in functional literacy,” a study by UP School of Economics Arsenio Balisacan confirms.

The new United Nations “2010 Education for All” report, however, upsets that “calculus.”

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The Philippines is a “striking example of under-performance” in educational reforms, the UN Secretary General says in this study of 160 countries. “Current policies are failing… in improving education of the poorest Filipinos.”

“The number of out-of-school Filipinos, aged 6 to 11 ‘broke through’ the one-million mark in 2007,” it adds. “A quarter of those entering school drop out before Grade 5.”

Stagnating enrollment ratios ranked us alongside poorer countries, e.g. Zambia. Worse, it dropped below what Indonesia and neighboring nations achieved.

Yet, we once led Southeast Asia, and most African countries. The Philippines’ average income is four times that of Tanzania. “Achieving universal primary education by 2015 should have been a formality…"

Instead, it turned into a rout. We “failed to go the extra mile.”

The Philippines resembles Turkey in failing to untangle “problems of deeply entrenched marginalization” associated with poverty and location...”

We also didn’t pour money where our mouth was. Malaysia spends 8 percent of its GDP for education, World Bank Indicators show. We penny-pinch at 3.2 percent.

That is one of the world’s lowest rates. Inevitably, Filipinos limped in among the last three countries in International Mathematics and Science Tests since 1995. So, why were we shocked?

Yen loan repayments for South Road Properties sapped funds for schools, nutrition, etc. Cebuanos bear double national per capita repayment burden for those Tokyo IOUs, Commission on Audit reports. “About 13 percent of the government’s annual budget is lost to corruption,” Asian Development Bank estimates.

This rip off widens the gap “separating the poorest 20 percent of Filipinos from the rest of society.”

“Poverty reduction (here) has been slower than in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam,” says “Poverty in the Philippines” (ADB/ 2009). “Hunger has been at double digits for more than four years…Conflict in Mindanao aggravates the problem.”

Worse, we deluded ourselves. How? By tampering with statistics. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo “solved” classroom shortages by shoving 60 students into one classroom, instead of 40---on paper.

In National and Secondary Achievement Tests, students flubbed English, Hekasi, Science and Math. So, authorities lowered the passing score---then added a bonus of 60 points. “This meant the criterion passing score was not 50 but only 37.5 percent,” Philippine Human Development Report noted. “Who are we kidding?”

In 1925, Yale University professor George Counts already warned of a school crisis emerging from the “quality deficit.” Filipino scholars amplified on the problem of “no read-no-write” graduates unable to cope with 21st century jobs.

The “absence of decisive political leadership” is causing “real danger” of our missing the Millennium Development Goal for providing universal primary education by 2015," the UN cautions.

That’s also “Failed State Avenue.”