MANILA, March 30, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva - If she wins the May 10 elections, President Arroyo said yesterday she plans to launch an "education for all" program that will grant a scholarship to one child of each of the countryís seven million poor families.

Mrs. Arroyo said that this would be the "next installment" of her plans to reform the Philippine educational system.

In an exclusive interview with The STAR, Mrs. Arroyo said the list of poor families would come from the successful but controversial "universal health insurance coverage" scheme that her administration is implementing under the Philippine Health Insurance (Philhealth) Law.

"We have already been able to identify indigent families because we already have the Philhealth program. So there are about five million poor families and two million very, very poor families. So we can start with the two million very poor families and then we (can) phase in the five (million families) if the resources will allow us," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said that the scholarship would complement the recently launched Student Assistance for Education (SAFE) or the revised "Study Now, Pay Later Plan" for graduating students in colleges and universities.

The President said what inspired her to embark on the ambitious program was her fatherís experience.

She said her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, used education as "his key out of a life of abject poverty to a good career that eventually brought him to the presidency."

Dubbed the "poor boy from Lubao," Macapagal finished his education and law degrees as a scholar of a rich philanthropist.

"Education is, to me, the key to so many of the poor being able to graduate from poverty," Mrs. Arroyo said.

The President, however, admitted that the government might not have the money for "a really good educational system that makes us competitive in the 21st century and that makes our values the way that they should be."

Asked for a timetable, she said that the implementation of the scholarship was contingent on her getting a fresh mandate in the coming elections.

"Probably for the next school year if I win," she said. "Probably there would have to be a revenue measure that goes with it. We have to identify that revenue measure."

Although the lionís share of the national budget already goes to education, Mrs. Arroyo conceded that automatic appropriations for debt servicing prevent the allocation of more resources.

"For now, itís because we have accumulated so much debt that we have to pay a huge debt service. Thatís why if we want to have a bigger budget for education, we really have to work on reducing the debt to GNP (gross national product) ratio," she said.

In the same interview, Mrs. Arroyo sought to distance herself from the proposal of Education Secretary Edilberto de Jesus to add an extra year to the present four years of high school.

"That is the pet program of De Jesus and I generally give my Cabinet members the leeway to make policies as long as there is no major problem with them," she said. "I do agree that there should be an extra year but I believe that extra year should be in day care school."

This early, parents and student groups have voiced their opposition to the proposal for a five-year high school curriculum.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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