Riyadi Suparno, Jakarta
During an informal gathering, Vice President Jusuf Kalla posed an intriguing question: Why has Indonesia, a country rich in natural resources, remained poor?
As you could guess, dozens of possible answers were thrown out. But one person came up with a good one that seemed to summarize all the others: Indonesia's poor human capital has seen the country left behind in terms of development even by its closest neighbors, like Singapore, Australia and Malaysia.
This should come as no surprise considering the country has invested so little to build its human capital. The government's spending on education has been consistently low, in fact among the lowest in Asia. Our education spending stood at around 1.5 percent of gross domestic product, as compared to 5.3 percent in South Korea and 2.8 percent in Vietnam, according to 2003 data from the World Bank.
Our political leaders realized this problem, and when they made a series of amendments to the Constitution in 2002 they inserted a paragraph in Article 31 on education obliging the government and the House of Representatives to allocate at least 20 percent of the government's annual spending for education.
The government and the House legally enshrined the 20 percent budget requirement when they amended the Education Law in 2003. In fact, this law goes even further in specifying that the 20 percent budget allocation for education should not include teacher salaries and official training.
Despite such noble political intentions, the government and the House have failed to deliver what was promised in the law. Government spending on education has never reached even half the required amount. Worse, regencies and mayoralties do the same thing, putting education on the back burner.
And no one seems to be bothered by this disdain for the law, except a handful of concerned citizens, mostly from the lower income brackets. Early last year, eight teachers from the small town of Banyuwangi in East Java filed a judicial review with the Constitution Court over the 2005 budget, which they said violated the Constitution because it allocated no more than 10 percent of government spending for education.
The court, in its verdict issued in July 2005, did not side with the teachers, saying that if the court ruled the 2005 budget invalid, the government would have to use the budget from the previous year, which had an even smaller allocation for education.
These eight concerned citizens did not give up. Joined by one more teacher, they filed another case review with the Constitutional Court, asking the court to nullify a number of articles and an elucidation in the Education Law that allowed the government to take an incremental approach to achieving the 20 percent budget requirement for education.
This time, the court met one of the teachers' demands. In a ruling last October, the court nullified the elucidation, which served as a caveat in terms of education spending, obliging the government to increase the education allocation to 20 percent of the state budget in 2006.
At the time the ruling was issued, the government and the House were finalizing the 2006 budget. As expected, they ignored the court and continued with business as usual. The result was that the allocation for education was less than 10 percent of the budget -- far from the required 20 percent.
The government presented to the House a scheme in which each year it would increase the budgetary allocation for education by an average of 3 percent, until it reached 20 percent in 2009.
This prompted the Indonesian Teachers Union, the Education Graduates Association and the Nurani Dunia Foundation to jump into the fight. Supported by 43 educators, they filed a judicial review against the 2006 budget.
After a long court battle, this coalition achieved one of its demands. In a ruling issued late last month, the Constitutional Court said the education allocation in the 2006 budget violated the Constitution, but the court stopped short of declaring the entire 2006 budget invalid. Instead, the court told the government to implement efficiency measures at ministries and state agencies, such as scrapping all nonessential travel, and funneling the money saved into the education budget.
Judging from the series of Constitutional Court verdicts on education and the way the government -- and the House -- has responded, or not responded, it is difficult to expect the government to heed this latest ruling.
As long as the government's budgeting system remains unchanged, with the finance minister coordinating the budgeting and the different ministries making proposals for their own budgets, we do not expect the government to be able to increase education spending drastically in the next three years.
Therefore, we call for reforms in the budgeting system to put education as the main priority. Only then can we be sure the education allocation will be increased to 20 percent of the state budget by 2009, as the government has promised.