1. Opinion

World Bank leader gives new hope for education initiative

We're concerned about our kids' school test scores here in Florida, and rightly so. We know that quality education equals greater opportunity.

But what about millions of kids around the globe who aren't in school at all, and so will never even have the chance to take a test? While these children have no voice and can only dream about going to school, there may be cause for optimism.

Dr. Jim Kim has just become president of the World Bank. Kim is a visionary focused on helping developing nations attain self-sustenance. He is a physician, longtime development leader and co-founder of Partners in Health. Most recently, Kim was the president of Dartmouth University. He understands the value of education.

Research shows that education is the prime way people lift themselves out of poverty. Our own country can thank Horace Mann in Massachusetts, who in the 1840s championed mandatory, free public education for all children so we could build our great nation. We take that for granted, but it wasn't always so.

The World Bank needs Kim's vision and energy because it has had a tendency to get mired in bureaucracy and administration, not unlike many banks. For example, in the 1980s, for budgetary reasons, the bank had a policy to impose school fees on students' families. This is a strategy that would come from a bank. But the World Bank is not a bank; it's a development agency. From its own website: "Our work is challenging but our mission is simple: help reduce poverty."

And the school fees meant that the poorest of the poor couldn't send their children to school because the fees were too big a part of their total income. We're talking about people living on incomes of $1.25 or less a day. Fortunately, the bank woke up to the problem and now has a strong stand against school fees.

Now the bank has a great opportunity to forward its mission. It has already supported successful education programs by helping create the Global Partnership for Education, which is dedicated to ensuring that all children have access to a primary education.

In 2010 the bank's managing director said: "Today I am proud to announce that the bank's International Development Association … will increase grants and zero-interest loans for basic education by an additional $750 million over the next five years to 2015. This represents about a 40 percent increase in our basic education lending over the past five years for the poorest countries."

However, one year later, the World Bank's IDA lending for basic education fell by more than half. Under intense criticism, the bank used some bureaucratic accounting language to explain this drop, but the truth is, instead of a 40 percent increase they made a 9 percent decrease. Over the five years of the original pledge, this change will mean $2.3 billion less for education in low-income countries.

The bank is essentially neutralizing commitments made by the international community last year to the Global Partnership for Education when it kicked off a three-year replenishment campaign to raise funding to realize its goals of getting 25 million children in school and training 600,000 teachers by 2014. The pledges received by GPE have now been negated by the bank's manipulative math and put us further behind on achieving the world's Millennium Development Goal No. 2 of putting all children in primary school by 2015.

Enter Kim, the reason for optimism in the face of this bad news. Just as he helped millions of people around the world realize their right to lifesaving medical treatment for AIDS and TB, he now has the opportunity to fulfill the original intent of the bank's 2010 pledge and help millions of children realize their right to a quality education.

Kim will travel to Japan shortly to attend his first World Bank annual meeting as president. This is the ideal forum to right this wrong and rededicate the bank to a leadership role in global education.

We need a reinvestment in education, especially for girls, and the financing that the bank provides to low-income countries is critical to expanding education for all. The World Bank must measure its success by how well it is doing with its mission to help reduce poverty.

Ken Schatz lives in Tampa and volunteers for Results, a nonpartisan citizens lobby to end poverty. He focuses on education for all, microfinance and ending preventable disease. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.