Education: A local and global priority

Guest Opinion: While we work to improve education for our own children, we can also do some good elsewhere.
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Students at a school in Kenya

Guest Opinion: While we work to improve education for our own children, we can also do some good elsewhere.

In Washington state, communities consider education of our children a high priority. It is also true that we frequently argue over funding levels and reform policy.

When I volunteer each week at an elementary school in South Seattle, I am motivated by the dedication of teachers and the eagerness of young learners. As we work together to make progress locally, we can also have a significant impact on children’s education around the world. Surprisingly, 57 million children who are primary school age do not have access to an education. 

Why are so many children not in school? Malala Yousafzai has brought a focus to this concern. Yousafzai is the Pakistani teen who was shot by the Taliban for supporting girl’s education. Her campaign for the right of children to attend school is inspiring. Unfortunately, a 2014 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) education monitoring report expects only 70 percent of countries to reach gender parity in primary education by 2015.

The benefits of girls’ education are striking. The report states that educating girls increases their chances of staying healthy and improving the health of their children as women. Adolescent girls who attend school delay marriage and childbearing and acquire information and skills that lead to increased earning power. Educated women are less likely to die in childbirth and their children are twice as likely to survive to the age of five.

In June, the U.S. has an important opportunity to invest in advancing global education. An international pledging conference, hosted by the European Union, is scheduled in Brussels. Funds committed will support the work of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). As a result of its formation by the international community in 2002, 22 million more children are in school. With a $250 million commitment over the next two years, the U.S. could make a significant contribution and join with many other nations to reach a goal of enrolling 29 more million children over the next four years.

It's an issue that, perhaps, is faraway in some sense but with lots of local connections. Republican Rep. Dave Reichert is the lead Republican sponsor of a bill, the Education for All Act, that would make it easier to contribute to multilateral organizations working to improve schooling internationally. Reps. Jim McDermott and Adam Smith are among the Democratic co-sponsors, and Smith is committed to pressing the president to fund the Global Partnership for Education. 

I have been fortunate to visit a number of schools in Kenya and learn about the challenges they face. Kenya eliminated primary school fees in 2003 and enrollment increased by 1 million students. This greatly stressed their educational system. In my visits to schools, it was common to see classrooms of 50 to 80 students. Head teachers and other staff expressed concern about overcrowding and limited resources. How can they use the effective instructional practices and small group learning activities that I see in Seattle?

Another challenge is securing the large number of trained educators to meet the demand for classroom instruction. Countries like Kenya need support.

The merits of partnering with other countries to increase the number of schools and trained teachers are clear. The UNESCO report states that education reduces poverty, increases job prospects and fosters economic prosperity. The report analyzed data to determine the impact if all students in low-income countries finished school with basic reading skills. Their calculations show that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12 percent cut in world poverty. Poverty reduction contributes to healthy and stable societies. As countries develop economically, they become active trading partners. Currently, over 50 percent of all U.S. exports are purchased by developing countries.

In 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations adopted eight Millennium Development Goals to make significant strides by 2015 to end poverty and improve the lives of people around the world. Goal two is to ensure that children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary school education. In 1999, 108 million children were out of school, and that number has dropped by nearly half. Unfortunately, poverty, lack of funding and countries affected by conflict make it unlikely that this goal will be achieved by next year.

We need to continue the focus on universal primary school and teacher support. Tell President Obama and members of Congress that, while all of us work to strengthen our own schools, a meaningful U.S. contribution at the GPE pledging conference is in our interest and will benefit children, families and communities around the world.


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