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Why This Week's U.N. Summit Should Not Lose Sight of Universal Education

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I received one of those robo-calls from my kid's school last night: Back to school night. And I know those calls will continue throughout the year: School pictures, state test assessments, sports events and other opportunities.

Our children are special. They deserve top schools and creative programs. All children deserve these things. But not all children get them. That's the way of the world.

Should it be? Should some children not even get the chance to attend school at all?

This may sound absurd, but that is the way of the world. It should not be, and we can make a difference. In many countries, the reality is that children do not have a chance at a basic education, the consequences of which are profound. Evidence shows that lack of education directly increases rates of poverty, infectious diseases, childhood death and economic stagnation -- which is rampant in many nations. The education gap can lead to an explosion of subversive forces taking over societies, harming democracy and at times contributing to state collapse.

These are among the reasons that President Obama vowed during his election campaign to help establish the Global Fund for Education with $2 billion in U.S. support. Not only has he has not met this commitment, but his administration actually reduced U.S. funding support for basic education by $82 million in the 2011 fiscal year budget request.

This not only is short-sighted from a policy point of view, given serious national security concerns in nations that face fundamentalist threats or an HIV/AIDS epidemic. It also breaks President Obama's moral promise to help vulnerable children, 72 million of whom are denied access each year to a basic education.

Consider just the impact of education on HIV/AIDS: Girls who are in school gain stronger life skills and confidence to delay marriage and sexual activity. In fact, HIV/AIDS infection rates are halved among people who finish primary school. This could prevent 700,000 additional cases of HIV each year.

The U.S. "needs to erase the global primary education gap by 2015," Obama told the Clinton Global Initiative two years ago in calling for a $2 billion commitment to the Global Fund for Education. "Every child -- every boy, and every girl -- should have the ability to go to school." It is similar to his campaign's foreign policy position paper, which noted that, "Education is the critical building block of social and economic development and is a key antidote to the hate peddled by extremists."

I know some of you worry that there is not enough money for America's schools, let alone those of other nations. But U.S. funding for a Global Fund for Education would come exclusively from the U.S. foreign aid budget, and a small pittance of it, at that. Not one penny would be taken from our own children's schools. I know that's important to you. It is to me, too.

Further, Secretary of State Clinton has committed to education for all. She initially introduced the Education for All Act in 2007, which would help achieve universal basic education for all children worldwide by 2015. Yet, she has not used her current authority to make education a priority of this administration.

Last Thursday, the bill was introduced again by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) ahead of this week's U.N. Millennium Development Goals Summit, when global leaders will descend upon New York to provide a progress report on the MDGs -- a set of eight goals agreed upon by 192 nations to halve poverty by 2015. The second of those goals is basic education for all.

Sen. Gillibrand's bill -- nearly identical to bipartisan legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) in April -- calls for assistance to expand access to school, improve educational quality, reach marginalized and vulnerable children, and build country ownership and capacity to create and implement their national education plans.

It also urges the U.S. to support the Global Fund for Education by changing our funding mechanism. Current U.S. policy has education foreign aid made through bilateral -- country-to-country -- channels. The Education for All legislation would allow the U.S. to support multilateral international education initiatives, such as a Global Fund for Education.

Congress, for now, is leading this charge. With the MDG Summit this week, President Obama can regain his leadership position. Each year, there is a $16 billion global funding gap for basic education. The United States needs to pay its fair share and fulfill President Obama's promise.

"We can no longer step lightly around this shame," The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, Honorary Chair of the Global AIDS Alliance, wrote last spring when the House bill was introduced. "It is our moral obligation to give every child the very best education possible."

I will not stand by as another generation of children falls victim to poverty, disease and war. UNESCO recently released a report that says 1.8 million children's lives in sub-Saharan Africa could have been saved in 2008 if their mothers had at least a secondary education. We also know that children of mothers with a primary education are 40% more likely to live past the age of five. And schooling for an adolescent boy reduces his risk of becoming involved in conflict by 20%. Clearly, what we do today -- or fail to do -- will shape our world for decades to come.

Thank goodness, these are not issues that our children face. We have good, safe schools, and a guarantee that every child can attend them. Our children are special. They deserve these things. All children deserve these things.

Dr. Paul Zeitz is executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance

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