TACOMA, Washington — The Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development (READ) Act was signed into law in 2017 with the aim of promoting basic education initiatives across the world to strengthen education systems, increase access to “safe learning,” assist countries in raising literacy rates, improve the quality of foundational education and leverage education as a tool to spur sustainable economic growth. The READ Act Reauthorization Act of 2022 was introduced in the 117th Congress and passed in the House of Representatives on September 20, 2022, but did not progress in the Senate. On January 24, 2023, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) reintroduced the READ Act Reauthorization Act (S.41) to reauthorize the READ Act for an additional five years.
The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Education
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures led to the disruption of education worldwide, resulting in unprecedented learning losses and backsliding in global education goals, with the most brutal impacts on the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
The OECD highlights that within the first 12 months of the pandemic, lockdowns pushed 1.5 billion students in 188 countries out of school, detrimentally impacting the education of an entire generation. These learning losses, without intervention, could significantly harm the economic well-being of not just individuals but entire nations.
By March 2022, schools had still not fully reopened in 23 nations, UNICEF reported. During the initial two years of the pandemic, close to 147 million children missed out on more than 50% of in-person classroom education, equating to a learning loss of a staggering 2 trillion hours.
Though most schools have reopened, the pandemic brought the education of some learners to a permanent conclusion. In Liberia, about 43% of public school learners did not return to the classroom when the government reopened schools in December 2020. In South Africa, between March 2020 and July 2021, the number of out-of-school children increased threefold from 250,000 to 750,000.
The Global Education Crisis
Even before the wake of the pandemic, the world found itself in the depths of an education crisis. The World Bank notes that “all children should be able to read by age 10,” yet more than 50% of 10-year-old students in low and middle-income nations could not read and comprehend a basic text prior to the onset of the pandemic. In the sub-Saharan African region, this rate of learning poverty stood at almost 90%.
This essentially means that even though children may be attending school, they are not acquiring the foundational skills necessary to thrive. Failure to acquire reading proficiency impacts one’s learning ability throughout life, which, in turn, impacts job prospects and the ability to contribute to the economy, among other impacts.
As a result of learning losses and school dropouts, this generation of learners could potentially face an estimated $17 trillion loss in lifetime earnings, equivalent to about 14% of global GDP, the World Bank estimated in 2021. Furthermore, learning poverty rates could soar to 70%.
Prioritizing Girls’ Education
Apart from the pandemic, other crises have also adversely impacted education, specifically girls’ education. In Afghanistan, girls’ education has regressed since the Taliban seized Kabul in August 2021 as the Taliban banned the secondary and tertiary education of all females.
As a result of persistent gender inequality, poverty and conflict/violence, the number of out-of-school girls amounted to 130 million globally, even before the pandemic struck. In impoverished households in disadvantaged countries, parents tend to prioritize the education of boys and invest in sons as societies place less value on females and gender norms direct that girls shoulder the burden of household and caretaking responsibilities.
However, overlooking the education of girls comes at a colossal cost for both the world and girls. “Limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings,” a 2018 World Bank report highlights.
The Benefits of Girls’ Education
Research by Plan International and Citi Global Insights indicates that for every dollar put toward upholding girls’ rights and advancing girls’ education, a return of $2.80 is generated, which could amount to billions of dollars of additional GDP for developing countries.
Through education, a girl’s earning potential rises and poverty diminishes in her community. According to the World Bank, each year of secondary education can bring about a 25% increase in wages when a girl enters the workforce. These positives benefit the next generation too — girls who receive an education are likely to invest in the well-being of their families and prioritize the education of their own children later in life.
Additionally, girls who are educated are less susceptible to child marriage and gender-based violence and have better health outcomes, including a reduced risk of maternal mortality and infant mortality. In fact, girls who undertake secondary education are six times less likely to enter child marriages. World Bank research shows that eliminating child marriage could generate more than $500 billion worth of advantages annually.
This combination of benefits can help raise households, communities and nations out of poverty.
The Importance of the READ Act Reauthorization Act
“Given the terrible learning loss around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reauthorizing the READ Act couldn’t come at a more important time,” Sen. Durbin said in a press release. “Doing so will ensure U.S. development programs continue to focus on providing basic education around a sound long-term strategy – one that includes making sure girls have access to schooling.”
“After years of acute learning loss brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of vulnerable children around the world have lost out on valuable educational opportunities and are confronting futures rife with violence and poverty. The resources provided by the READ Act are now more important than ever,” Sen. Rubio said.
Education plays a vital role in reducing global poverty. In 2016, the Global Partnership for Education estimated that 171 million people could rise out of extreme impoverishment if all children attained basic reading competencies, and, each added year of schooling could raise future earnings by about 10%.
Regression in education endangers the world’s ability to build human capital and reach the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. As today’s children are the future leaders and changemakers of the world, prioritizing their education is of utmost significance. Passing the READ Act Reauthorization Act of 2023 is essential for continuing the READ Act’s work in eliminating poverty by advancing basic education for children across the globe, especially girls. The Borgen Project is eager to build support for this critical piece of legislation. Those who wish to support the Act can visit The Borgen Project’s action center to encourage their Congressional representatives to co-sponsor the bill.
– Saiesha Singh