OPINION: It is imperative that we keep education front and center – Asheville Citizen-Times

 Rarely does a day pass when you can’t find something in the Citizen Times focused on education. In recent days we’ve seen pieces on the reduction in funding from the county (May 26), closing of Asheville Primary (May 26), the need for North Carolina to provide more equitable education (May 26), expanding pre-school in Buncombe County (May 27), and protests outside the Buncombe County School Board meetings (June 5).  

Why so much coverage of education? Because we all know the importance of education in the lives of our children and our communities. If we fail to provide quality education, the region will fail. Our residents will not have the skills and learning aptitude needed to work higher-level, good-paying jobs, which will cause businesses to locate elsewhere, and people to move away. The ceaseless coverage of education is needed and appreciated, particularly given that NC has some of the biggest educational achievement gaps in the country between low-income and other students. 

The bottom line is we cannot afford to shortchange education or allow gaps in quality to exist due to race and income. We also cannot afford to avoid teaching the truth about the history of oppression and discrimination in our state or country, even if it’s embarrassing. The quality of education we offer each of our children will dictate their future and the future and prosperity of our community. Our people are our greatest asset, and we must ensure that every child has a quality education, even if it means spending more and targeting investment toward those who have historically been discriminated against or left out.  

    And as we think about the kind of community we want to live in, and the role education plays in creating it, we must not forget that 1.6 billion children around the world have been out of school at some point during the pandemic, and that most children living in poorer countries have had little or no access to remote learning. This continues to be true as low-income countries preserve social distancing practices because they have little or no access to COVID-19 vaccines either.  

In many low-income countries, schools provide more than just education; they provide food and nutrition, safety, and psychosocial support. What will the lives of these children, denied education, look like? What options will they have? Will their countries be able to participate in the global economy? And if they can’t, what kind of desperation will result? History tells us that desperation typically leads to vulnerability, instability, and extremism. That’s not good for anyone. 

But the global education story during the pandemic has not been all bad. Thankfully, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), an organization the U.S. supports, jumped into action at the beginning of the pandemic, investing $500 million in emergency COVID-19 support to low-income countries to develop educational curriculum for radio, provide internet access where was none, and support house-to-house delivery of lessons and homework. Though it is fortunate that GPE was able to act immediately, they have depleted their resources, and their investment is only a fraction of what is needed.  

GPE has a replenishment conference in July where they are seeking $5 billion from donor governments, foundations, and private enterprise to fund a five-year plan to support 90 countries to expand access to quality education. GPE estimates they can leverage the $5 billion to provide quality education to 175 million students and get an additional 88 million children in school. They estimate these efforts will lead to 2 million fewer child marriages, lift 18 million people out of poverty, save 3 million lives, and add $164 billion to partner economies. This is good for the children, their countries, and the U.S. 

If we fail to help children in poor settings get back on track with their education, we risk losing a generation of students that will have limited opportunities in the future. Senator Thom Tillis recently signaled support for increasing funding for GPE in fiscal year 2022. He is right. But the N.C. congressional delegation should do more. Senators Tillis and Richard Burr, and Reps. Madison Cawthorn, Virginia Foxx, and Patrick McHenry should call on the Biden Administration to make a meaningful U.S. pledge at the July GPE replenishment conference. A U.S. pledge will send a signal to other countries to do their part and help GPE do the important work of creating opportunity, stability, and peace through education.  

This is a critical moment to prioritize education in our community, state, and in low-income countries. Our future depends upon it. 

Ken Patterson is director of Grassroots Impact for Results.org, a movement of passionate, committed everyday people working to end poverty.