Leaving a Legacy
Former Education Secretary Jesli Lapus talks about improving the quality of education in the country and proves that he is worthy of the title, “Champion of Public School Teachers.”
Life is short,” says former education secretary Jesli Aquino Lapus. It was a realization he came to in his mid-thirties when he was diagnosed with coronary heart disease, a condition that increased his risk of suffering a fatal heart attack. Two years later, a tumor was found in his brain—something that would have left him with only six months to live, if it hadn’t miraculously disappeared.
Born in Tarlac on September 12, 1949, Lapus had already collected a string of achievements before he turned 30. At age 20, he became auditor-in-charge at auditing firm SGV & Co. At 23, he completed the Masters in Business Management program of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) and became the youngest Chief Finance Officer of the Ramcar Group, establishing the company as the market leader in the country. At 29, he became the first Filipino and the youngest Managing Director of Triumph International. He was even dubbed “ASEAN’s Management Whiz Kid” by Asian Finance magazine.
“I was at the peak of my professional career,” says Lapus. “I was on top of the world and I’d won all my rat races, when all of a sudden I realized that life could snap out of me anytime. And so I started thinking of legacy—of a significant contribution I could make to my country.”
A Heart for Public Service
At the time of his illness in the early ‘80s, his country was also in turmoil. His cousin Ninoy Aquino had just been assassinated and Filipinos were revolting against President Marcos. After being given a new lease on life, Lapus left Triumph and decided to help in the transition from the Marcos dictatorship to the Aquino administration. In 1987, he was appointed Undersecretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform, where he established the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) Fund and set up the Support Services Sector.
In 1992, his public service continued as President Fidel Ramos asked him to head the government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines. At 42 years old, he became the bank’s youngest president and CEO, steering the bank from number 18 to become the third biggest in the banking industry.
After his stint in Land Bank, Lapus served for three terms in the Philippine House of Representatives from 1998 to 2007, where he advocated the cause of education. After exposing the multi-billion peso automatic payroll deduction scheme—a move which led to the streamlining of the payroll and deduction systems, which benefited around 300,000 teachers all over the country—he earned the title “Champion of Public School Teachers.”
“Someone has to protect their interests,” says Lapus. “[The automatic payroll deduction scheme] has been happening for 20 years and has impacted the quality of education. It developed the culture of teachers trying to make money to make both ends meet. The teachers didn’t know what was happening to them, so I fought for it.”
Champion of Education
In August 2006, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed him Secretary of Education, he was more than willing to take on the challenge. “I believe the quality of human resource will determine the future of our country,” he says. “I’m not in government to have a picnic. I’m here to try to make a difference. Why be in a field that people say is right down your alley and is easy? If I wanted an easy time, I’d have stayed in the private sector. DepEd counts for one third of the entire bureaucracy and you don’t need a teacher to run that—you need a professional manager.”
Lapus believes that teachers are the backbone of education. His three-and-a-half-year term in the DepEd is characterized by teacher development and boosting their morale. He also takes pride in his participative management style. “I try to make myself accessible,” he says. “Imagine how many texts I get a day from parents and teachers! I think the entire city knows my cell phone number.” While the Department of Education has suffered from a negative image in the past, it was consistently rated positive under Lapus’s leadership.
Lapus understands teachers’ concerns, partly because he was once a teacher himself. “I taught in Ateneo and AIM,” he shares. “[Teaching] is about molding human beings and seeing that pupil become somebody. I like to look at myself as a developer of managers. When I came here, I found out that the administrators or managers of the department, like principals, had no management training. They think like teachers. I’ve been sending them to AIM for three-week management and leadership courses. It opened their minds completely.” For Lapus, seeing the teachers improve their competencies is one of the most fulfilling aspects of the job.
A Cause for Society
Lapus firmly believes that it is not just the DepEd that is responsible for education—it’s the entire society. This is why he has worked closely with the private sector. He tells companies, “You’re the employers. Your best return on investment is to invest in education.”
One project that promotes community involvement is the Brigada Eskwela, where citizens of each barangay do cleaning and minor repairs before school starts. “It’s like a family affair,” says Lapus. “Now, they are saying, why don’t we do it all-year round? Enjoy sila. They realized it’s also a good bonding opportunity with their kids.” The project is spearheaded by DepEd’s Adopt-A-School Program and has saved the department P5.7 billion in repair costs in 2008.
Given his multi-faceted background, Lapus believes all his experiences in the past have helped him with his job as Education Secretary. He says, “I think I have succeeded in making all sectors of society aware that education is everybody’s responsibility and they’ve responded. Given that, there’s a better chance of doing more things… At the end of the day, I ask myself, how do I make my teachers be the best they can be?”
Secretaries come and go—Lapus is the sixth secretary to take over the DepEd in eight years. After three and a half years on the job (and losing 18 pounds in the process!), Lapus has learned that the key to success is to empower those who are permanent, the civil servants and the middle management, so they can “take ownership of the improvements and reforms and continue with it.”
Lapus believes his most important legacy is putting education in the front seat of everyone’s minds, to make it the first priority of national and local government units, private corporations, and NGOs. He is also proud of implementing the digital literacy training for teachers and strengthening technical vocational education in the country. Plus, he is the only secretary to hold two international positions, having been an Executive Board Member of the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and President of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO).
Lapus recalls that when the Thai Minister of Education visited schools in the Philippines, he was amazed by the teachers’ flexibility, passion, and intensity. Lapus says, “What we have going for us is that our Filipino teachers are genuinely passionate about teaching. The teachers serve as second parents and they truly love their pupils.”
Aside from nurturing this love for their students, Lapus advises teachers to continue improving their competencies. “We are competing in a global arena,” he says. “It’s already proven what we learn today is likely to be obsolete four years from now.”
Indeed, improving the quality of education in the country is a never-ending task—one that not only the teachers, but all members of the community, must be responsible for. Though Lapus is no longer with the DepEd (he was transferred to DTI in March 2010), there is no doubt that he will continue to be a champion for teachers and leave a legacy we can all be proud of.