Being Right

Perhaps Congress doesn’t realize it, but although it’s constitutionally vested with legislative power, it doesn’t mean it must make laws if none are needed. The Constitution requires no quota as to the number of laws made. And sometimes legislative power is actually best exercised by not making a law at all.

Yet, last August, Congress enacted another law that clearly falls not only in the unnecessary category but is also patently unconstitutional.

Republic Act No. 11394 (or the “Mandatory Provision of Neutral Desks in Educational Institutions Act”) demands all schools in the Philippines to: “provide neutral desks to all students” and that by June 2020, “neutral desks equivalent to 10% of the student population” must be provided and thereafter “to all students.”

A “neutral desk” is “a table or an armchair that is suitable for both right-handed and left-handed students.”

The rationale? “The State recognizes the vital role of the youth in nation-building, and shall promote and protect their physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social well-being. It is hereby declared the policy of the State to promote the equal development of students, including those who are left-handed. Towards this end, the State shall require educational institutions to provide appropriate armchairs to address the needs of the left-handed student population.”

And as Department of Education Undersecretary Alain Del Pascua reportedly said: “The uncertainty of actual numbers of left-handed learners per classroom and per school would always result in either the lack of or oversupply of left-handed armchairs in a given school. This is one of the reasons that prompted the department to study the adoption of neutral school furniture.”

But the Constitution provides that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.”

The point is: it’s questionable enough that tax funds are to be used for RA 11394’s amorphously vacuous purposes, but to compel even private educational institutions is downright unconstitutional.

It violates the due process clause and also the right regarding the non-impairment of contracts.

Legislation of this kind is usually based on parens patriae and police power reasoning, but such arguments are without merit.

Parens patriae or the idea that the government is the “father of the nation” (or “the government being the protector of the rights of the people,” as stated in the Monte de Piedad case) is an outmoded legal doctrine that normally nowadays is limited to issues relating to the protection of children from abusive adults.

Such a doctrine has no place in a constitutional system where “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them” and where the State is mandated to “serve and protect the people.”

Neither is “police power” valid. For such, it is necessary that a lawful subject involving public interest be served, and the means employed reasonably necessary and not unduly oppressive upon individuals. (see Nachura, Outline Reviewer in Political Law).

Here, we’re talking of a law focused on left-handed youths, a possible mere 10% of the student population, backed by absolutely no study showing health or related risk or academic disadvantage in the use of right-handed desks except for smudged writing.

As of 2017, there were reportedly around 1,943 Philippine private higher educational institutions, with a reported 27.7 million students in 2018.

Just make rough, simple calculations: at P500 per simple student armless chair (assume such is available) vis-à-vis 27.7 million is P13.850 billion.

Even assuming each school or university merely has 10,000 students, that would amount to a ridiculous P5,000,000 for each school. Which would most likely be passed on to the parents come tuition time.

Our student population certainly has problems but left-handedness is nowhere a problem.

Mental health problems could be, considering 20% (or one in five in 2016) of Filipinos suffer from it. Of that, around five million suffer from clinical depression.

Another is teenage pregnancy in the country: 8.7% in 2017, with around 200,000 Filipinas 15-19 years old pregnant. This averages to 500 teenage girls giving birth daily, with an increased rate of 30% (in 2017, up 10% from 2016) of teenagers engaging in premarital sex. Such figures are amongst the highest in Southeast Asia and, as one PIDS study show (Paqueo, et al., April 2013), has a fundamental effect on education, income, and productivity.

Meanwhile, annulment cases are rising, with the Office of the Solicitor General seeing a more than 100% increase from 2001 (4,520) to 2014 (11,135). The effect these broken marriages have on children, as study upon study shows, are devastating.

If Congress really wants to help children, the better thing is to focus on measures strengthening the family.

As for RA 11394, the IRR’s are to be finished this October. Let’s hope it’s no longer necessary. Because we urge Congress to please reconsider and repeal this silly but humongously expensive law.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula