U.S. Must Do More on Global Education

Congress Must Support Bipartisan Legislation and Other Opportunities to Get All Children a Seat in the Classroom

April 2008 — Access to education is generally considered to be a fundamental right. But for millions of children around the world, even a basic education is unattainable. At least 72 million primary school age children around the world are not in school. Some families cannot afford the fees that many poor countries charge to admit students. For others, schools are too far away or too crowded. Girls, in particular, face significant cultural obstacles to gaining an education in many locations.

This month, activists across the U.S. and around the world will observe the Global Campaign for Education's Week of Action, April 21-27, and urge their leaders to support efforts to get children in school worldwide. In 2000, all of the countries in the world agreed to a series of eight goals to help end poverty and foster development around the world. Known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the second of these calls for the world to work toward achieving universal primary education by 2015. So far, the world's countries have fallen short of the mark. If current trends continue, 58 out of the 86 countries that have not yet achieved universal primary enrollment will fail to do so by 2015.

Despite congressional leadership to increase funding, U.S. global education assistance needs an overhaul. Current assistance is not targeted to countries with their own strong national education plans, and is not prioritized to remove critical barriers like school fees. The Education for All Act, introduced last year in Congress, could jumpstart the necessary reforms. The bill calls for increased investments in education and the need to make global education a higher priority for U.S. foreign assistance. Opportunities loom large for our nation to do its part to open the schoolhouse doors for all the world's children. Such investments, especially those aimed at getting girls in school, will pay future dividends in the form of a world that is healthier, more productive and more fertile for the growth of democracy. It is critical that Congress pass this bill, and pass it quickly, in order to achieve the second MDG.

Benefits beyond the Classroom

Education is a critical determinant of access to economic opportunity and better health. Particularly for women and girls, the economic and personal empowerment that education provides allows them to make healthier choices for themselves and their families. On average, for a girl in a poor country, the Global Campaign for Education estimates that each additional year of education beyond grade three or four will lead to 20 percent higher wages and a 10 percent decrease in the risk of her own children dying of preventable causes. Children of mothers who receive five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond age five. Educated mothers are 50 percent more likely to have their children immunized.

The ability of girls to avoid HIV infection is so strongly associated with achievement in school that education is considered a "social vaccine" against the virus. If all children received a complete primary education, the Global Campaign for Education says, as many as 700,000 cases of HIV could be prevented each year. Opening classroom doors to all children will help eliminate root causes of poverty and disease.

Barriers to Education for All Children

School fees pose one of the greatest obstacles to education in many poor nations. Most countries that charge these fees began the practice decades ago at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to offset the cost of services. This was a price many indebted nations paid under "structural adjustment." This misguided policy mortgaged the future of dozens of countries when their poorer citizens could not afford the fees to send their children to school. The World Bank reversed its policy on primary school fees in 2001, but many poor countries continue to charge some type of fee for basic education. These fees generate relatively little revenue, while putting the cost of education on the backs of children. Resource-poor countries need investment in their national education plans so they can remove these barriers and provide an education to all children.

Other costs associated with school  uniforms, books, supplies, meals — also pose a barrier to children from impoverished families. Education programs must accommodate the poor by providing these necessities.

An inhospitable climate discourages many girls from attending school. In addition to long, unsafe journeys to and from school, many schools offer little or no privacy for females to relieve themselves and attend to personal hygiene. Schools closer to home with separate latrines for boys and girls are needed to achieve gender parity in school enrollment.

A Desperate Need

Both adults and children who lack an access to education are desperate to have the same opportunities as their counterparts in wealthy countries. This was made abundantly clear in 2003, when Kenya waived primary school fees throughout the country. Officials expected a dramatic rise in the number of children attending schools, but what actually happened was astounding. One million additional children, whose parents could previously not afford to send them to school, poured into the classrooms, almost overnight. Education officials reported that even elderly people, who never had the chance to go to school, showed up at classrooms seeking the chance to learn. While the massive influx posed a challenge at first, the removal of these fees has served as a catalyst for increased investment in education not just from donors, but also from the Kenyan government. It has also been a cause for reform, making the school system more transparent and accountable to the communities it serves. For example, school funding levels and uses of that funding are posted in full public view in every community.

Sometimes the needs are more simple, but just as dire. When Gene Sperling was serving as chief economic adviser under President Clinton, he visited a school in a small Senegalese village. Although he had been warned not to open the floor up for questions, for fear of the students making an "inappropriate request," he did so anyway. A young boy raised his hand and asked "Do you think next year at our school we can have a third grade, and a bathroom?"

The simplicity of the request floored Sperling, who thought that requesting the chance to go to third grade and have a bathroom was hardly inappropriate. The young boy in front of him wanted the chance to learn, but his education would likely end after grade two. A modest increase in resources could make all the difference in changing the boy's future.

The Education for All Act

The Education for All (EFA) Act authorizes the U.S. resources and leadership necessary to help ensure a successful international effort to provide all children with a quality basic education. The EFA Act requires the president to develop a comprehensive integrated strategy to reach the 2015 goal of universal access to education. The bipartisan bill would authorize an initial $1 billion in annual global basic education funding for this year, scaling up to $3 billion by 2012. This represents the U.S. share of the resources needed to fill the estimated financing gap to achieve international education goals.

The bill would focus support on countries that have completed, or are in the process of completing, the Fast Track Initiative (FTI) process. The FTI, set up as a partnership between donors, developing countries and non-governmental organizations, endorses developing countries that put primary education at the forefront of their domestic efforts and develop sound national education plans. Donors then agree to provide coordinated and increased financial and technical support for these plans. Funding authorized by the EFA Act would support activities to eliminate barriers to education, including the elimination of fees and expenses related to attending school. The EFA Act would also require the president to prioritize basic education funding and strategies for the most disadvantaged children, including girls in poor and remote areas, child laborers, the disabled, victims of sex trafficking, orphans, and those impacted by HIV/AIDS.

The Education for All Act was introduced by Representatives Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Spencer Bachus (R-AL) (H.R.2092) and Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) (S.1259) on May 1, 2007.

The Chance to Dream

It's difficult to capture in photos or video the consequences of the world's failure to educate all children. There are no distended bellies like those of kids starving in the midst of a drought. There are no small caskets like the ones for children who perished from AIDS. But lack of knowledge eventually takes as many lives as any famine or epidemic. Worse, it takes away hope that the next generation will live better lives than the one currently struggling to survive.

When President Bush travels to the G8 Summit in Japan this July, Congress must send with him the clear message that the United States stands ready and committed to funding its share of an initiative that sees "no child left behind" throughout the entire world.