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Questions linger over how Prabowo will fund free school meals

Jakarta Post - March 13, 2024

Nina A. Loasana, Jakarta – Questions remain over how presumptive president-elect Prabowo Subianto is planning to fund his flagship free school lunch program after a senior minister's proposal to dip into school aid funds was met with widespread opposition from teachers.

Prabowo's free school meal program has been at the center of public scrutiny after preliminary vote tallies indicated that the Gerindra Party chairman had a comfortable lead over his opponents in the February presidential race.

The program targets more than 82 million students from preschool to senior high school and is expected to cost between Rp 100 trillion (US$6.4 billion) and Rp 120 trillion in its initial year. Once the program reaches full scale in 2029, the scheme will cost an estimated Rp 460 trillion a year, equivalent to 12 percent of this year's state budget and approximately 2 percent of the country's GDP.

Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto of the Golkar Party, which supported the Prabowo-Gibran Rakabuming Raka ticket, recently touted the idea of using school operational assistance (BOS) funds to partially fund the free meal program.

The suggestion was met with opposition from teachers' associations, which said the BOS funds were barely enough to support day-to-day operational costs and improve teachers' welfare.

Last year, the government allocated Rp 53.3 trillion for BOS funds for primary and secondary schools, with each school receiving between Rp 900,000 and Rp 1.5 million per student, depending on the level of education it provided. This year's BOS funds have been cut by 2.3 percent to Rp 52.08 trillion.

Fahmi Alaydroes, a member of House of Representatives Commission X overseeing education, also criticized Airlangga's proposal. The lawmaker from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which backed Prabowo's rival Anies Baswedan for the presidency, said the free lunch program should be implemented in a way that would not jeopardize efforts to improve education quality in the country.

"We should remain committed to using 20 percent of the state budget to fund efforts that will improve the quality of education in our country. [...] We don't want to use our education funds for programs that are irrelevant to these efforts," Fahmi said in a House plenary session last week.

Details hazy

Viva Yoga Mauladi, a spokesperson for Prabowo's campaign team, said the defense minister would not use the BOS funds to provide free lunches and milk to schoolchildren.

"We understand that the current BOS funds are not enough to support school operations. That's why some regional administrations disburse more assistance funds for schools in their respective areas," Viva told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday. "We don't want to cut down this already limited budget for the free lunch program."

He added that the funding would be taken from "other social assistance" funds and that further details on the free lunch program would be discussed once the official winners of the Feb. 14 presidential election were announced.

"Prabowo will share the technical aspects of the program, such as its funding sources and other mechanisms after the KPU [General Elections Commission] announces the official results and the Constitutional Court resolves any election disputes," Viva said.

Last year, the government disbursed a total of Rp 443 trillion for various social assistance programs, including for fuel and electricity subsidies.

Another Prabowo campaigner, Eddy Soeparno, said last month that Prabowo planned to slash subsidies for fossil fuel and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to fund the free lunch program. Eddy said most of the subsidies were enjoyed by the middle class instead of low income families, which he said demonstrated the need to make the subsidy scheme more effective.

The plan, however, has sparked ire from members of the public who fear that slashing energy subsidies will increase food prices.

Shortly after the controversy, Drajad Wibowo, another member of the Prabowo team, said free lunches would not be funded by the state budget and would certainly not draw on allocations for energy subsidies.

"This program will be paid for with new funding sources [...] that have not been collected by the government thus far," Drajad said last month, Bisnis Indonesia reported.

Source: https://asianews.network/questions-linger-over-how-prabowo-will-fund-free-school-meals