Promoting quality education for all.

Universal Access to Learning Improves all Countries

August 17, 2010

Source: The Fort-Worth Star Telegram

By Merrit Martin

Special to the Star-Telegram

Growing up in North Texas, I went to great public schools. They offered excellent arts and athletics programs and a host of Advanced Placement classes. A multitude of extracurricular activities, enrichment programs, summer classes, field trips and college and career counseling services was always available.

And while not all North Texas schools are uniformly high-performing, the state accountability ratings released July 30 suggest that we are making significant improvements. Both the Dallas and Fort Worth districts were deemed academically acceptable, and the worst-performing schools seem to be improving, with fewer schools in both districts rated academically unacceptable. There is plenty of room for improvement, of course -- any number of schools rated unacceptable is still unacceptable. But despite fiscal constraints and the perennial fight over standards, the data suggest that North Texas public-school students will have access to a fairly solid education when they head back to class next week.

However, the 72 million children worldwide who aren't enrolled in school won't. There are numerous reasons why kids don't get to go to school. In many countries, public education is not funded exclusively through tax revenues, and impoverished families may not be able to afford the fees. Some children, particularly girls, have to stay home to fetch water, help with chores or care for sick relatives. War has disrupted the education of the 300,000 children who have been conscripted into the armed forces and 43 million of the children living in conflict zones.

Those children face immense dangers and challenges, but education has been shown to significantly improve nearly every area of a child's life.

According to UNESCO, for example, a single year of schooling can increase a child's future income by as much as 10 percent, and even more for girls. A 2009 Save the Children report found that a male's chances of engaging in violence decrease by 20 percent for every year of schooling he receives. And educating girls is especially important, not only for them but also for their future children. The World Bank, Save the Children and UNICEF agree: Educating girls leads to delayed marriage and childbirth, healthier children, lower child and maternal mortality rates, economic opportunities and decreased rates of HIV infection.

Universal access to free, quality education is crucial for all other development goals -- without education, efforts to combat AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, terrorism or human trafficking are unlikely to succeed. In the words of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "no other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity or to reduce child and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS."

Yet education rarely makes it onto the U.S. foreign aid agenda. So during the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama promised a $2 billion Global Fund for Education to replace the floundering Education for All Fast Track Initiative, child advocates and aid reformers got excited. And in April, the long-awaited Education for All Act of 2010, HR5117, was finally introduced by Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Dave Reichert, R-Wash.

With more than 64 co-sponsors, it is a big step toward ensuring universal access to education. The bill would help millions of children in the developing world by creating the Global Fund for Education to ensure transparency and accountability, establish long-term funding and align funding with host countries' national education plans.

Every child, from Arlington to Afghanistan, Southlake to South Africa, deserves the chance to learn, and the Education for All Act could be a turning point for the effort to provide universal basic education. But in June, the House Appropriations Committee announced that it would not increase funding levels for basic education programs. It is clear that the Education for All Act will succeed only if constituents strongly urge lawmakers to make it a priority.

Merrit Martin, a native of Grapevine, is a rising senior at the University of Texas at Austin and interns with Global Action for Children in Washington, D.C.

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