A few months ago, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s K-12 spending is constitutionally inadequate and unfair. If lawmakers don’t pass a school finance formula the court will accept this year, Kansas will face the possibility of school closures.
When I was the opinion page editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal—a daily newspaper in the Kansas capital—I published piles of op-eds and letters about the state’s school finance crisis. For example, the author of a 2017 letter to the editor argued that Kansas children are being “irreparably harmed by the reluctance of Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislators to properly fund our schools.” Like this reader, many Kansans believe the state is failing children by refusing to invest enough in their education.
But compared to dozens of countries in the developing world, Kansas (like every other US state) spends lavishly on its education system—something I was reminded of again and again during a trip to Tanzania with a group of other American writers and editors last fall.
When it comes to the well-being of children in our own society, our ethical concerns are so finely calibrated that a $3.4 billion education budget in Kansas—a state of less than 3 million people—is regarded as woefully inadequate by a substantial proportion of lawmakers and taxpayers. By contrast, Tanzania is a country of almost 55 million people that budgeted around $2 billion for education in the 2017-2018 school year.
The consequences of this lack of investment are conspicuous: The average Tanzanian classroom is crammed with more than 70 students (compared to 20 in Kansas), the upper secondary graduation rate is around 3 percent (compared to almost 87 percent in Kansas), and many schools lack access to the most basic educational resources. After the Tanzanian government made primary education compulsory and waived fees in 2001, enrollment swelled from 57 percent to 94 percent in under a decade. But the country wasn’t (and still isn’t) able to cope with this massive influx of students, which is why we often saw barren bookshelves, narrow slabs of wood in place of desks, and classrooms overflowing with more than 200 children.
Other African kids face even larger challenges. For example, 62 percent of primary-age children in Liberia aren’t in school. One in seven Somali children dies before reaching age five (when most American kids start kindergarten). If you’re a young woman in South Sudan, there’s a better chance you’ll die in childbirth than graduate from high school.
When Americans hear grisly statistics like these, they often mutter “how awful” and go about their business. But in 2018, we can no longer pretend like these problems are intractable or ignorable. We’re witnessing an unprecedented international mobilization around education in the developing world, and the United States should increase its commitment to that effort.
One of the main reasons I traveled to Tanzania was to learn about the Global Partnership for Education (GPE)—a multilateral funding platform that connects developing countries with donors, policy experts, the private sector, aid organizations, and other resources to increase the number of children in school and improve educational outcomes.
Since 2014, GPE has disbursed more than $82 million to Tanzania—money that has paid for textbooks, community outreach programs, classroom construction, and the implementation of a new skills-based curriculum for all students between the ages of five and 13. Between 2014 and 2017, it distributed millions of textbooks throughout the country. At a school we visited on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, administrators took us to a library where the shelves would’ve been completely empty but for the rows of new textbooks that had been provided by GPE.
GPE supports students in 65 developing countries—almost half of which are affected by instability and conflict. Across the partnership, there were 72 million more primary-age children attending school in 2015 than in 2002 (the year GPE was established). Completion rates have surged as well: In 2002, only 63 percent of primary students and 38 percent of lower secondary students in GPE countries graduated—proportions that have reached 76 percent and 50 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, gender discrimination has plummeted—while the primary enrollment rate for girls in GPE countries was 57 percent in 2002, it rose to 71 percent by 2014.
While these data are impressive, there are a few caveats. For example, Tanzania’s dramatic primary enrollment growth took place after the waiver of school fees and the shift to compulsory education in 2001. These decisions were made a year before GPE existed, so the partnership can’t take credit for a significant percentage of new Tanzanian students. This problem of attribution applies across the partnership: We don’t know how enrollment rates, test scores, and other indicators would look in the absence of GPE involvement.
All of that said, GPE is a vast and complicated undertaking, so tracking its impact is inherently difficult. Developing countries are in the early days of a long and arduous process—some are still developing national education plans, and many haven’t fully implemented academic evaluation strategies (though the strategies themselves exist).
By providing developing countries with resources and technical expertise to help launch reforms, GPE gives them a powerful incentive to prioritize education earlier rather than later. This shift in emphasis could have a colossal impact over the next few decades.
GPE countries are responsible for creating and implementing their own education plans with assistance from experts who work through the partnership. They’re also asked to allocate 4 to 6 percent of their GDP and/or 15 to 20 percent of domestic expenditures to education. Between 2002 and 2013, average education expenditures in GPE countries increased from 15.2 to 16.6 percent, while expenditures as a proportion of GDP rose from 2.9 percent to 3.9 percent. Non-GPE countries saw much smaller increases over the same period of time, which suggests GPE is making crucial progress toward its ultimate goal: convincing partner governments that robust investments in education are in their best interest.
Education has a profound impact on all aspects of society, including economic growth, health care, civic engagement, and the likelihood of violent conflict. According to UNESCO, a single year of education can increase a person’s income by up to 10 percent. When a mother is literate, her child’s chances of living past age five increase by 50 percent. Women who have finished primary school are five times more likely to be educated about HIV/AIDS than those who haven’t. The World Bank has even found that the level of secondary education in a country can predict whether it will be involved in an armed conflict—if the enrollment rate is 10 percent higher than average in the developing world, the risk of war falls by 3 percent.
On February 2, the French and Senegalese governments hosted the third major GPE replenishment conference in Dakar. At the conference, GPE donors announce how much they will pledge to the partnership while developing countries make formal commitments to invest in their education systems. Over the past five years, the United States has consistently increased its contributions to GPE—from $20 million in 2013 to $75 million in 2017. However, it’s only the eighth-largest donor, having spent a total of $198.5 million since 2009—4.01 percent of overall contributions. Compare this to the United Kingdom (22.01 percent), the Netherlands (13.03 percent), Norway (9.88 percent), Australia (8.03 percent), Denmark (7.86 percent), Spain (7.13 percent), and Sweden (7.03 percent).
But to appreciate how small the United States’ relative contribution actually is, consider it as a proportion of GDP. Then our rank falls from eighth to 18th, placing us behind every country besides for Japan, South Korea, and Romania. In fact, the United States’ GDP is more than two-and-a-half-times larger than the combined GDP of the top seven donor countries, which cover more than 75 percent of the partnership’s funding.
The US population is six times larger than Tanzania’s, but it spends 317 times as much on public education. Yes, disparities between wealthy and poor nations are inevitable, but the sheer size of this gulf should be disturbing to anyone who considers education a universal right. Also, it’s worth noting that Americans spent 667 times as much on beauty products as they spent on GPE last year. And 547 times as much on cigarettes. And 720 times as much on alcohol.
As we made our way through the colorful, clogged streets of Dar es Salaam, we were frequently surrounded by dense crowds of teenagers loitering on the side of the road, sitting on idling motorcycles, and sprinting up to our van to sell us fruit, plastic utensils, or warm bottles of soda. Even at 11 am on a Monday morning, none of them were in school. And we didn’t just see teenagers—at one intersection, two children (who couldn’t have been older than seven or eight) clambered onto the hood of our car and started washing our windshield. After our driver produced a meager tip, they trudged to the next vehicle in line and started scrubbing.
Do we really want to live in a world where 264 million children are washing windshields or starving on the side of the road instead of going to school? Do we want to live in a world where hundreds of millions of children can’t read or do math at a level anywhere near what’s adequate for their age?
I traveled to Tanzania with RESULTS, an organization that advocates for greater American investment in global health, anti-poverty, and education initiatives—including GPE. Before the third replenishment conference in Dakar earlier this year, RESULTS called upon the United States to make a three-year pledge to GPE and increase its annual investment from $75 million to $125 million. But the American delegation failed to commit any new funding.
Other donor countries had a disappointing showing as well, falling well short of the $3.1 billion goal for this funding cycle (they contributed a total of $2.3 billion). However, developing countries pledged $110 billion—an amount that will push many of them past the targets set by GPE. This provides even more evidence that GPE is having a powerful impact as a catalyst and facilitator, which gives donor countries all the more reason to increase their contributions as the partnership seeks to expand.
Although the American delegation missed an opportunity for global leadership in Dakar, Congress is still responsible for the final decision on GPE funding—a decision that shouldn’t be difficult to make. Hundreds of millions of children don’t deserve to watch their futures dissolve simply because of where they were born, and the United States can do much more to prevent this from happening.
Americans have a skewed perception of how much their government invests in foreign aid. According to a 2014 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56 percent of them think the government spends too much on foreign aid. But when they’re informed that foreign aid only comprises 1 percent of the US federal budget, this proportion collapses to 28 percent. Perhaps American taxpayers will have a similar reaction to the data cited in this article. Considering the United States’ miniscule contribution to GPE (especially in relative terms) and the partnership’s success in encouraging developing countries to support education, it’s clear that greater investment is warranted.
Now is the time for Americans to contact their members of Congress and urge them to support international education. Whether they send a letter to the editor of their local newspaper or contact their representatives and senators directly, public pressure is vital to secure a more robust commitment to GPE. Americans are capable of resisting their idle assumptions about foreign aid and recognizing that a better educated world is safer and healthier for everyone.
Aren’t the aspirations and anxieties and joys and fears of a Tanzanian child every bit as important as yours or mine? If I can see the answer to this question all the way from Kansas, Washington should be able to see it, too.