As the Biden Administration unveils the American Families Plan, an ambitious social infrastructure bill that prioritizes education, it is also time to focus on what the United States and other donor countries can do for students everywhere. Education has been upended worldwide as the pandemic has caused widespread disruption, endangering the futures of the world’s 2.2 billion children. Among the severe challenges they have faced are school closures, the loss of family jobs and income, and escalating domestic violence. Yet, the American Families Plan contains an education model that can serve as a template for helping students around the world win back their futures.
A key component of the bill is the comprehensive expansion of education in America beyond the widely accepted standard of 12 years of schooling towards a 2+12+2 model: or 2 years of pre-primary education, 12 years of primary and secondary education, and 2 years of post-secondary education. 2+12+2 is a universal need for students everywhere, which is why it belongs on the top of USAID’s global agenda, just as it is for the national agenda.
The global community has long experienced an education deficit, especially in early education. Pre-pandemic levels of early education were already grossly insufficient — particularly in low-income countries, where as many as eight out of 10 children do not receive early education. Early education is key to a child’s development and can set them up for success in school and beyond. It represents their best start in life that needs to be available for all children, especially those from historically marginalized communities. Without early education, these children suffer the most, exacerbating structural disadvantages that only continue to widen throughout their school years. Yet early education can also help overcome these same structural injustices and set up all children for success. And it is an investment that delivers exponential returns to both partner and donor countries: a dollar spent on early education returns on average 17-fold to a country and up to 33-fold in developing regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.
Nevertheless, donor countries have not sufficiently invested in early education with their partners. Theirworld’s recent report, “A better start? A progress check on donor funding for pre-primary education and early childhood development,” shows that even before the pandemic, early education aid was a pittance, with donors committing 37 times more to post-secondary education. Of the top 30 education donors in 2019, eight did not put any aid towards pre-primary education and another eight decreased their share of early education donations. Consistently, global aid for early education is less than 0.9 percent of total education spending. Even as education investments on all levels must increase, Theirworld recommends that 10 percent of education donations go to pre-primary education. This goal of 10 percent is not an arbitrary number — if donors could meet this standard for only a year, 6.4 million more children could attend a year of pre-primary education.
In 2019, before the pandemic, global aid to pre-primary school-aged children amounted to, on average, just 34 cents per child and was less than 10 cents per child in crisis-affected areas such as Chad, Sudan, and Venezuela. Compare that to the almost $10,000 per child that the U.S. spends a year as part of the Head Start program. Of course, no one expects the U.S. or any other donor nation to alone make up the shortfall in education funding between developed and developing countries, especially in an era of increased economic uncertainty. Nevertheless, the needs after the pandemic are even greater and a shortfall of this magnitude represents both a strategic threat to global stability and a gross abdication of our collective responsibility to all children.
Without dramatically ramping up education aid and capacity, in conjunction with partner countries, USAID cannot fully overcome the COVID-19 pandemic or achieve other shared objectives including sustainable development and climate action. Indeed, the current severe underinvestment in global education poses a significant threat to core American interests including national security, human rights, and democracy promotion, and gender equity. At the same time, investments in education also offer a tremendous opportunity for U.S. leadership and for enhancing the security and prosperity of Americans at home. After all, education creates middle classes, which among many other positive externalities, serve as growing markets for U.S. businesses and workers, as development success stories in diverse regions show.
COVID-19 has been a clear reminder of the fundamental interconnectedness of the international community. Just as an outbreak or variant in any part of the world can soon spread to any other, so can the lack of education in any community impacts us all. By the same token, however, a vaccine developed through international cooperation can also help all of us to be safer and more secure. Investments in education work the same way.
The international community needs to invest a minimum of $75 billion annually towards education, not counting their respective domestic investments, to ensure all children receive a quality education by 2030. The U.S. is rightly ramping up its domestic education investments and USAID should move in parallel to mobilize resources for international education. As the Biden Administration seeks to lead us out of the pandemic, education can be at the heart of both its international and domestic agendas. With 2+12+2, they have the right formula to act. Now all that is needed is the political courage to do so.
Justin van Fleet, Ph.D. is the President of Theirworld and the Executive Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education