Education Spending and the Indonesian Constitution

The fourth amendment to Indonesia’s Constitution requires both central and regional governments to allocate at least 20% of their budgetary spending to education. Though it attracted little attention at the time, the absurdity of this amendment is now becoming more apparent. The entirely arbitrary 20% level far exceeds typical levels of expenditure on education in the past, and so this minimum requirement has simply been ignored by central and regional legislatures in the years since the amendment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a group of teachers has brought a case before the Constitutional Court, asking it to rule on the validity of the central government’s current annual budget, in view of the fact that education spending remains well below the mandated minimum. The court had no choice other than to agree that the current budget violates the amended Constitution, but it was not prepared to go so far as to annul the law in which that budget is contained.

What we are left with, then, is a part of the Constitution—the highest law of the land—that no government has any intention of obeying. To those who believe that respect for the law is one of the most fundamental ingredients of a properly functioning democracy, this is a very worrying state of affairs.

The lesson that needs to be learned from this, perhaps, is that the Constitution is not the appropriate place to set out aspects of government economic policy in fine detail. It should be left to elected governments to determine the extent to which they involve themselves (and taxpayers) in promoting education, and the nature of such involvement. This should not be a matter of law, but of responding to the wishes of the electorate.

More generally, it is time legislators accepted the reality that it is futile to pass a law that, for practical reasons, cannot be enforced. There are many elements in the Constitution that come in this category. Who will be held to account, for example, if an Indonesian citizen misses out on his or her constitutionally guaranteed “right” to social security? The time is well overdue for a thoroughgoing review of the Constitution, directed, among other things, to weeding out such elements—or at least to express them as desirable objectives rather than “rights”.

Much more likely, the same teachers will ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of next year’s budget—because it is a virtual certainty that education spending will again fall well short of the 20% minimum.