Investing in public education worldwide is now more important than ever

Students listen to a greeting from a principal through TV class at an elementary school, where students found positve for a new coronavirus test, in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture on June 18, 2020. The elmenatary school decided to operate the staggered attendance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )

In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, many schools have had to close, impacting the learning of over 1.5 billion children around the world. With an uneven transition to distance learning, education systems are confronted with more extensive and dire challenges of educational access, equity,  quality, and inclusion. Beyond the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on global learning, the global economic crisis it has precipitated will have lasting impacts on today’s children and youth over the medium and long term. As economic activity slows and government budgets shrink in response to the pandemic, there is a risk that governments will place an emphasis on short-termism that could shift funding away from education and undo some of the progress achieved over the last two decades in increasing public expenditure in education throughout the world.

This positive trend in education financing was the result of decades of efforts across governments, bilateral and multilateral agencies, donors, civil society, and the private sector to improve the access and quality of teaching and learning that enable children and youth to build the skills they need to thrive in work, life, and citizenship in the 21st century. However, even before the pandemic, the impact of increased education expenditure was not necessarily reaching the poorest and most marginalized and has been insufficient for closing the learning gaps between rich and poor nations, and within rich and poor regions within nations.

COVID-19 risks not only dialing back progress achieved in increasing investment and improving student outcomes in education, but further widening learning gaps within and between countries. Governments around the world are prioritizing spending on health and economic stimulus and social safety nets, and while this is undoubtedly the priority in the short term, in the medium term there is a risk that public education investment will decline and leave behind those children and youth around the world who are most in need of high-quality education. Education decisionmakers and stakeholders must grapple with how to ensure much-needed resources and, at the same time, how to build better education systems after COVID-19. How decisionmakers respond to the COVID-19 challenge will have lasting impacts on today’s children and youth.

Together with the World Bank, UCL Honorary Lecturer Vikas Pota, and Argentinian Senator Esteban Bullrich, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings has been convening a series of private roundtables that bring together ministers of education around the globe, heads of education foundations and multilateral institutions to discuss strategic options to ensure that in these times of crisis, children and youth continue to have access to quality education. We have heard from former heads of state, who have generously contributed their time and insights from previous experience having had to make tough decisions to allocate resources in times of financial crises. Here, I summarize three key messages distilled from these conversations.

1. Education must be perceived as part of the solution to rebuilding the economy. Indeed, education accounts for a large share of direct and indirect jobs: Educators, construction workers, food providers, and health workers are some of the direct and indirect jobs that serve educational institutions.

2. Education is the key to a country’s competitiveness in a global economy. Countries that have more highly skilled workers fare better in the tech-based, knowledge economies not only of today but of the future.

3. The extensive use of technology in education during the school closures can be a lever not only for transforming education systems but also entire economies. The challenge is to link schools to the transformation that is needed post-COVID-19, building the breadth of skills needed to rebuild the economy.

Our team at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings is committed to continuing to build and synthesize evidence in support of investing in education efficiently and equitably, to develop tools to help guide decision-makers faced with important trade-offs in resource allocation, and to continue convening ministers of education and stakeholders to facilitate conversations to help mitigate the impact of the financial crises resulting from COVID-19 on education systems worldwide.