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September 5th, 2006
Time for School Series
Interview: Gene Sperling

September 5, 2006: Gene Sperling, senior fellow for economic policy and director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the global effort to achieve a free education for every child in the world by 2015 with anchor Daljit Dhaliwal.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Gene Sperling, welcome to WIDE ANGLE.

GENE SPERLING: Well, thank you for having me.

DHALIWAL: What do you make of the film that we just saw?

SPERLING: What’s so inspiring and heartbreaking about both this film and this issue is that this is a disease with a known cure. I don’t think anybody who just watched this show didn’t feel that they couldn’t just reach out to Neeraj or Nanavi and with just a little bit of support — a little bit of help for the poverty they’re facing, that their family is facing, with a little bit of help with their education from that circle of support — that each of these children couldn’t succeed and couldn’t have a far better future. And yet, you see how precarious, in each case, the children in the poorest countries’ futures are. And how little is needed to open up a whole future for them.

DHALIWAL: All right. Well, let’s step back for a moment. Is there a global crisis in education?

SPERLING: I think this is the foremost crisis of developing countries. You know, you never see a child die from education on TV. But make no mistake about it: children die from lack of education all the time. Children without an education are more likely to grow up to have HIV/AIDS. They’re more likely to die in infancy or before the age of five. So this is a life or death issue.

DHALIWAL: Because if they go to school, they’ll learn about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves and a whole host of other things?

SPERLING: Yes. This is an area where the evidence is overwhelming. Children who get educated not only have higher earning potential — better economic futures — but they’re less likely to die as an infant. Girls are more likely to grow up to be mothers who have smaller, healthier families. They’re less likely to contract HIV/AIDS. All of these things that are critical to life opportunities are improved by both the length and the quality of education.

So this is probably the single best investment the world can make. Investing in all children, and particularly girls, probably has the highest return of any investment that we can make in reducing poverty and improving the situation around the world. And yet, this is one of the most vastly under-funded and vastly neglected areas in the world.

DHALIWAL: And talk to us about the numbers. How many kids around the world are out of school?

SPERLING: Today there are 100 million children who will not be going back to school. There are 100 million children who will not see the inside of a classroom this year, who will not have a teacher wonder whether they did their homework. And there are probably another 150 million children who are in school but, like the children we saw in Afghanistan, are likely to drop out before fifth grade.

Remember in the story on Afghanistan, 74 percent of those girls are likely to drop out before fifth grade. Close to 60 percent of the world’s out-of-school children are girls. And one of the things this show really shows so powerfully is the situation of girls in developing countries. What you see is how much it is a struggle against poverty, and how much of the burden is put on the girls. Look at Shugufa: she works six hours in the morning before going to school. Look at Neeraj in India: her father is willing to send her to night school, but only if she takes care of so many of the chores that are part of living in extreme poverty.

One of the things we have to remember about the poorest countries in the world is that parents, extremely poor parents, are making the choice of whether to send their girls to school. And they are struggling with lack of water, lack of firewood, and lack of care for their youngest children. And those burdens fall on the girls.

The good news is that all over the world we have found that when you intervene with just small incentives — making schools close by, having female teachers, eliminating fees, giving a little funding for sending your kids to school, relieving some of the extreme burdens of poverty — parents will always choose for a better future for their children, including their girls.

DHALIWAL: And where in the world are the obstacles to learning the greatest?

SPERLING: Well, I think the worst situation really is for girls in remote rural areas. They’re facing the greatest obstacles. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, you will see, in remote rural areas, places where only 20 or 30 percent of girls go to school at all. In Africa as a whole, only about half of girls ever complete a primary education. And today there are more children out of school in Africa than there are children in school in the United States.

DHALIWAL: You wrote that this is a silent emergency. Talk about that.

SPERLING: People tend to see emergencies in terms of famine. They tend to see the cameras rushing in. They see children dying, war, hunger, and drought. What they don’t realize is that you may never see a snapshot of a child dying from lack of education. But education is a life and death issue. And it’s not only about whether somebody lives or dies, but about the quality of their life.

One of the wonderful things that this show brings out is that these are all children with hopes and futures. Sometimes when we see stories on extreme poverty in Africa, we see children who look like pure victims: “Give a dollar a day so they can survive another day.” You don’t see the hope, you don’t see their futures. What this show brings out is that these are children who want to be pilots. They want to fly. They want to see the world. These are children who with just a little bit of help, $50 or $100 a year, could be provided a quality education in Africa. And look at the difference that’d make for someone like Joab. If he drops out after his mother dies, he is going to lead a very desolate life. And yet, if he stays in school, he could be anything. And that’s what we face. This is about not just life and death. It’s about the quality of life. It’s about the hope and it’s what this show so powerfully brings to life.

DHALIWAL: What’s at stake for the kids in our film if they don’t complete their schooling?

SPERLING: Well, you know, one of the most powerful anecdotes I know is Angelina Jolie adopting her daughter, an AIDS orphan, from Ethiopia. A famous movie actress meets a girl who is most likely to lead a very desperate and impoverished life, perhaps a life picking little bits out of trash to sell, perhaps getting into drugs or prostitution. And yet, now this child will have a tremendous future.

Now, we can’t all adopt a child. But as a country, we can make that difference. I mean, as a community, as a global community, we can essentially adopt these children by making sure that there is that $50 to $100 per child. So that when you see the young student Joab in Kenya, you look and you know very powerfully what he is likely to do. He is likely to end up being a street child in Kenya. He is likely to have a life full of crime and drug running. And yet, he goes back to school. He’s a leader in the school. He’s the prefect. He has pride. Who knows what is possible for him? Perhaps he will be a pilot. These are key moments. Whether this child gets to fifth or sixth grade and completes and goes on can make all the difference.

And what keeps him from doing that? Often school is just too far away. Often it’s how extreme the poverty the family faces. Often, as we saw in the film, it’s a death in the family. For each of these children, we know that if somebody could offer $100, $150, the child’s life could be transformed. They could stay in school. When Brazil says that you can have $45 a month if your children stay in school, well, even though Jefferson’s parents are unemployed, they’re still sending their child to school. A small incentive makes a huge difference.

Think about what it would have meant to Neeraj’s father if someone had said to him, “Send your daughter to the day school instead of the night school, and we’ll make it free. And we’ll offer you a little bit of incentive to make up for the opportunity costs you’ll lose by having your daughter going to school.” These are small differences that can transform the life and future not only of the little girls and boys we saw, but of their families and their grandchildren.

One of the important things we’ve seen is that school is not free in most of the poor countries of the world. And the small fees that are charged to send your child to school can often mean 20 to 30 to 40 percent of a very poor family’s income. So what does a poor family do in those situations? They send their oldest boys to school, not their girls. When you charge fees, you are denying school to the poorest children, to the girls, to those who have been negatively affected by death, by AIDS, to those who are orphaned.

If you wanted to create the most unfair system you could — if you wanted to create a financing system that was designed to make sure the poorest and most vulnerable children in the world had a barrier to going to school — you would do this. You would charge a fee per child.

DHALIWAL: But Kenya and Uganda have abolished fees, right?

SPERLING: Well, that’s why there’s no question that this works now. Because when Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania eliminated fees, children poured into school. In Uganda, enrollment went from 3.5 million to six million overnight. In Kenya, it went from 5.9 million to 7.2 million — and now almost 8 million — just because fees were eliminated. So we know this works. We know that when you eliminate the fees and you make it easier for poor parents to send their kids to school, they will.

But let’s also remember, with Nanavi, that one of the costs she faced was money for chalks and supplies. They had to pull together to buy some of those things. School uniforms are also costs. The length of distance to school is a cost, because parents fear that their girls may be sexually molested if they have to walk several miles.

But what we know is that when you reduce those costs — when you eliminate fees, when you offer, as Brazil does, small incentives for going to school, when you have schools close by and allow parents to participate how the school is designed and how it’s governed — parents all over the world choose to send their kids to school. That again is what is so inspiring and yet heartbreaking. This is a disease with a known cure. You make school free and parents will send their children to school.

DHALIWAL: Did you think that the examples of Kenya and Uganda can be repeated in other parts of Africa? Are there willing participants?

SPERLING: Well, the important thing to understand is that countries like Kenya and Uganda were very successful in getting more of their children into school. But without enough resources, what happens? Seven hundred more children come to a school. Well, that’s good news. But without the funds for more teachers, it means that his student-teacher ratio goes first from to 74 to one and then to 90 to one. Well, here in the United States, we want class sizes of 25 or 20. Joab is in a school with 90 kids per one teacher. So the real challenge, perhaps the challenge of education in developing countries, is how to increase access without seeing exploding class sizes and decreasing quality.

And that’s where those of us in the richer countries come in. We can say to a Kenya, “If you’re going to eliminate fees and try to get all your children into schools, we want to make sure you have the resources to hire enough teachers and have long-term funding so that you know that you can bring two million more children into your school and see class sizes at 40 or 45, not 80 or 85.”

DHALIWAL: Yet often the funding that comes forward, it’s two or three years, it’s short-term rather than long-term, which is seven to nine years. Well, why is that a problem?

SPERLING: It’s a gigantic problem in education. Because in education almost everywhere in the world, teacher’s salaries are the main cost. And teacher’s salaries aren’t a one-year or two-year cost. If you have a million more children coming into your school, you need to hire 25,000 more teachers. So when Kenya has two million more children coming in, they need to hire 50,000 more teachers. They have to hire them, train them, and place them. If your funding’s only for two or three years and if you run the government of Kenya, you’re going to worry if the funding’s going to run out just as you start to hire teachers. That’s why we need to say to the poorest countries, “If you’re willing to be accountable, transparent, make sure money gets where it’s supposed to, to the children it’s supposed to help, then we want to make sure you have the long-term funding so you have the confidence to hire the teachers that can keep class sizes down and quality high.”

This is the number one challenge in the poorest countries in the world right now.

DHALIWAL: And are developing countries holding up their end of the bargain? Are they coming up with solid, viable education plans?

SPERLING: We just saw Kenya here. Kenya is really right at the cutting edge. They’ve eliminated fees. Here’s another thing that they’ve worked out: They’re sending the funding for schools to local banks. It means the headmaster comes and gets the funding. So for those who worry that if they’re giving money to the central government it will somehow be wasted, they don’t have to worry. Kenya is working on having the funding, every dollar, going directly to the local headmaster. Then the parent has a chance to ask where that money is going, how it’s being spent. You see a lot better transparency and parental involvement in a lot of schools in Kenya than you see in the United States. So I think Kenya and Uganda are trying to step up to the plate. But I do think that Kenya is a perfect example of a country that has not brought on more teachers, because they’ve not had enough confidence that the foreign assistance that they’ve received will be there in the long term.

DHALIWAL: Let’s talk in a bit more detail about the obstacles faced by girls. Why is it still so much harder for girls to go to school?

SPERLING: Well, it’s easy to just say that it’s cultural. But I think when you look beneath the culture, you also see a lot of economics. There’s a terrible expression, a horrible expression you hear a lot of places in the world, which is that sending your girl to school is like watering your neighbor’s garden. If you remember the mother who passed away in Kenya, she’s looking for Joab to be her son who grows up and takes care of her in her old age, which she never got to have. But a lot of times people think the girls are going to be married off and part of someone else’s family. So one of the things that’s important is to have people, like we saw in Benin, explaining why it’s important to send your girls to school. That they’ll have healthier families — that they’ll be better tutors to your younger children.

DHALIWAL: I mean, the evidence is absolutely overwhelming, showing how educating a girl is enormously beneficial, not just to her, but to her family, to the GDP of that country. But is the importance of that data understood today?

SPERLING: There is no question in the world that educating a girl is good for her country and good for her. The challenge is, is it good for her parents who are living in extreme poverty, who need the girl’s help to take care of getting firewood, water, taking care of young children? And that is where smart public policy that helps to align the incentive of the parent with the incentive of his girl makes a huge difference. If you provide a small degree of assistance, if you have people in the community who try to encourage parents why it’s important to send their girls to school, it works. There are examples of this working everywhere around the world.

DHALIWAL: Are you talking about cash incentives for the parents as well? I mean, ultimately they are the ones that are going to decide whether their girl goes to school or stays at home and does the chores.

SPERLING: Exactly. In the poorest countries of the world, it is the parent who ultimately makes the decision of whether to send their child to school. And the extreme poverty of the parents is the most important situation. But again, imagine if, in India for example, Neeraj’s father had a small incentive to keep his child in school, as the parents did in Brazil. They were in poverty, they were unemployed. But they wouldn’t consider taking their girl out of school. Because not only was school free, but their cash transfer was dependent on them sending their girl to school. I think that the story in India really does show what a lot of the challenges are. There is a cultural barrier. But there’s mostly a barrier of extreme poverty. If there was more help for Neeraj’s father, for their family, for dealing with that drought, if it were easier to send their girl to school, if they had a little bit of support, it could make all the difference in whether or not they send her to night school or day school. Or whether they decide that it will actually be better for their family’s long-term income to have her continue to go into school, as opposed to be sent out to graze cattle.

Those are economic decisions being made by the poorest parents in the poorest countries in the world. And that’s where those of us in the richest countries can make a difference. It’s not that we’re imposing our will. It’s just offering a little bit of help that tilts the cost-benefit choice to deciding, “I’d rather send my girl to school.”

DHALIWAL: Let’s rewind six years. Its 2000 and world leaders are in Dakar, in Senegal. And the very least that they promise kids around the world is a basic education by 2015. Was this the defining moment to do something about education?

SPERLING: Well, I was very proud to lead the U.S. government to Dakar.

DHALIWAL: You were representing the Clinton administration?

SPERLING: I was representing the Clinton administration, and truly the whole U.S. government in making the commitment, being one of the 180 countries that signed on to say that there should be universal primary education by 2015. I always say this is the world’s most ambitious and pathetic goal at the same time.

It is ambitious, because right now, probably 60 or 70 countries are seriously off-track to meet this goal. Out of the hundred or 110 poorest countries, more than half are still off track to reach the goal of universal education by 2015. It is ambitious because nearly half of girls in Africa today do not graduate from just fifth or sixth grade.

And yet, to some degree, it’s a pathetic goal. Because when I go speak to a group of children and I tell them that the U.N. Millennium Goal is universal primary education by 2015, every single time, the first hand, the first comment from a young child in the U.S. is, “Why are you waiting till 2015? And why are you only aiming for primary education?” And those are great questions.

We really do need not only universal primary education, but basic and secondary education. Every child really needs eight, nine, ten years of school, minimum. And the cost for doing this is so minor compared to the other things the world spends money on.

Certainly, poor countries have to be in the driver’s seat. But in Dakar, in that commitment in 2000, it was not a give-away commitment. It was not a handout commitment. It was a compact. The compact was that if poor countries used their resources, their political will, to step forward with plans to get all their children in school by 2015, that the richer countries would not let them fail just for lack of resources.

And the sad, sad news is that the richest countries in the world are not keeping their promises to the children we saw. They’re not keeping their promises to the Nanavis, to the Joabs, to the Neerajs, even though they’ve all signed on the dotted line.

And for every child we see, there are millions like them whose opportunities and futures and health will be lost. Just for that extra $50 or $100 a year that could make the difference between their families choosing an education over choosing to pull their children out of school to deal with extreme poverty.

DHALIWAL: At Dakar, what grade were they promising to get the children to?

SPERLING: Well, the words “primary education” were used. In some countries primary education does mean eight or nine years. But, I think it’s been interpreted at the low end of five or six years. Five or six years is just a pathetic goal for the world on education, particularly in the poorest countries, where there’s already such a struggle for quality.

Our goal has to be not only getting the millions more children into school, but making sure that they’re learning well when they’re there. So, we need the resources to have small class sizes. We need learning to be interactive: teachers have to be trained and children have to have a chance to go to more than fifth or sixth grade. Think of someone in the United States being told that they’re child is going to get a fifth grade education and function. Well, it’s not much different anywhere else. In Africa, Southeast Asia, anywhere, a child needs eight or nine years to have anything that could reasonably be called a “quality basic education”.

DHALIWAL: And when you were in Senegal representing the Clinton Administration, was the United States leading the challenge on global education?

SPERLING: President Clinton sent me there to make a statement that we did care deeply about universal education. And in 2000 we were pushing, with the help of Bono and others, for debt relief for the poorest countries. And we always suggested that one of two key reasons that we wanted to relieve debt of the world’s poorest countries was to make room for them to spend money on education. This particularly was important in Tanzania, where they very much tie debt relief to doing more on education. But, make no mistake about it, the world — whether it’s the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration –none of us have done enough. Not nearly enough.

We probably had the first major commitment just this year. Gordon Brown, who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the U.K.

DHALIWAL: The British Finance Minister?

SPERLING: The equivalent of Finance Minister, or what we’d call the Secretary of Treasury, made a commitment for $15 billion over the next ten years. That’s one and a half billion dollars per year. So that means that the U.K. is now committing to spend three times more on the children that were featured in this documentary that we in the United States are. Think about that. Our economy in the United States is six times larger than the U.K.’s. And, yet we’re only going to be giving one-third as much. I think the heart of the American people is much bigger than that. I think most of the people who watch your show think that we should be willing to put in more.

DHALIWAL: Can we afford to give more?

SPERLING: We certainly can afford to. And, I would argue we can’t afford not to. When you think about the war on terrorism that we face right now, American people understand that the entire war cannot simply be chasing down and killing terrorists. At some point you also have to win hearts and minds. And, what greater way to win hearts and minds than for the United States to be seen as the champion of every child getting a quality basic education?

I think that if we had quality basic education for all children we would have a more prosperous, healthier, and I think a more peaceful world. And, if the United States was seen as leading this charge, not for any particular foreign policy objective, but just because we are a people with a big heart…

We are a people that believe that every child should at least have a fair chance. That’s what we believe in the United States. We don’t believe in equal outcomes. We don’t believe everybody should end up the same. But, we do believe every child should at least have a chance to seek his or her potential. When a child is pulled out of school in second grade because of extreme poverty or because her parent dies or because someone in his family got AIDS, that child never gets a chance. They never get a chance for positive options.

DHALIWAL: But Gene, you also know that we have tremendous problems of education in this country. What do you say to critics who say, “Our kids first, then the developing world?”

SPERLING: I say I think our heart is bigger in the United States than that. I think our head is wiser. In the United States school is very expensive. What does it mean for a quality education in a poor country? Fifty to $100 a year. So, the question is not, “Should we be taking tens, hundreds of billions of dollars that would be going to US education?” The question is, “Could we be spending perhaps $2 or $3 billion a year — a tiny percent of what we pay on far less useful spending in the United States — to help show the world that the United States truly cares about every child?”

You know, one thing I’ve heard from people in Muslim countries is, “You only started to care about us after 9/11. You only care about us to the degree that our children don’t grow up to kill your children.”

DHALIWAL: Is that true?

SPERLING: I think that is not true. I think that when American people see things like this film –stories of the Taliban keeping girls from going to school in Afghanistan — they don’t say “That’s wrong because I read Gene Sperling’s latest, boring report. They look and they see little girls on TV who didn’t have a chance to go to school. And, they will say in their hearts, “That’s wrong. That’s not what we believe in. And, it’s not just what we believe in for our children. It’s universal. We believe that every child should have at least a chance.”

So, what I would say to people is that this is a small investment in a healthier, more peaceful world. If the United States leading the charge in universal education prevented even one small conflict somewhere in the next 20 years, it would more than repay what we’ve spent. It would be a good investment.

But again, when the American people saw little girls in Afghanistan not going to school, because the Taliban wouldn’t let them, they didn’t even need to hear it was a good investment. They knew it was wrong. And, I think that for the cost of $50 or a $100 per child, we could at least do our part. We could do our share to lead an effort to at least accomplish the goal of universal basic education: eight or nine years of quality education for every child. I think it’s the least we can do. I think it’s the least we can afford to do.

DHALIWAL: What’s it going to cost to educate every child by 2015?

SPERLING: The estimates range from $5 to $10 billion dollars more a year. But, remember, that’s all the rich countries in the world pooling things up. I mean, look, I worked in the United States Government for eight years. There’s a lot of things we spend $1 billion or $2 billion or $3 billion on that are special interests, that are pork, that are things most Americans think are very wasteful.

Here’s another way to think about it. Right now what we spend on education for all the poor children in the world is about what we spend to build 20 high schools in the United States. For all the countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America — all those 100 million, 200 million, 300 million poor children who don’t have a quality basic education — our commitment to them is about what it costs us to build about 20 schools in the United States.

Most people don’t know that. I think Americans have big hearts. What they want to know is that the money is going to be well spent. They want to know there’s going to be accountability, transparency. They want to know that that money’s going to get to the Joabs and Neerajs and the other children we saw. And if it does, then I think Americans will think, as I do, that this is a small investment in peace and prosperity and preventing HIV/AIDS, and in terms of the goodwill and the heart of America.

DHALIWAL: Well, how much money is in the fund right now, and how much more is needed?

SPERLING: Well, right now I would say probably the world as a whole spends a little over $2 billion — maybe $2.5 billion on primary basic education for the world’s poorest children. So, that means the United States, UK, France, Italy, all the countries in the world together probably spend about $2.5 billion.

DHALIWAL: So, hold on a second. Is the rich world serious about educating kids, then?

SPERLING: I think lots of people are going out and giving passionate talks about the importance of girls’ education. But, if you measured commitment by whether you’re willing to contribute just a little bit to make sure some of the children that we saw in this documentary have a chance for a decent education, I would say the world has not been serious so far. It has not lived up to its promises to these children.

Remember, somebody like myself who thinks the United States and others ought to step up to the plate and make that $2.5 billion something more like $10 billion a year, we’re not crazy advocates. We’re simply asking our own government to do what we already promised to do. Simply put, we’re asking the richest countries in the world not to break the promises they’ve already made to the very children that we saw today on this documentary.

DHALIWAL: What is the United States giving?

SPERLING: The United States is probably giving around $400 or $500 million, and that has been an improvement. And there has been some progress since 9/11. It started with the debt relief movement in the late 90s.

And I also want to say that I don’t think this is a partisan issue. I don’t think this is something that is a Republican or a Democratic issue.

I think we’ve all gained greater awareness on the issue of AIDS. I think we’ve gained greater awareness on the issue of hunger. But I think there is still too little awareness that in the poorest countries in the world, school is not free for the poorest children. That poor parents have to choose between survival and sending a girl to school. And that this is, of all the difficult problems we face in the world, this is one difficult problem we know how to solve.

DHALIWAL: So I have this figure here: $465 million. Isn’t that what the United States is giving to global education every year?

SPERLING: That’s about what we give. But remember, the U.K. is giving $1.5 billion. I don’t think that we’re one third as generous a people as the U.K. is. I don’t think that when we’re six times richer, have a six times larger economy, we should only be giving one-third as much as the U.K. has. I think whether it’s Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton, or George Bush or Laura Bush, I think they care about this issue. I think they’ve talked about this issue. It’s just time. It’s time to match that commitment with real dollars, real commitment. Start working with these countries to come up with real plans. And, I think they need to be long-term plans that help these countries actually recruit, hire and train teachers, who can go into the classrooms to handle these addition students.

I really do think this is something that could bring both parties together. I just don’t think there’s enough awareness. But if you bring a president to Africa, and if they look into the eyes of somebody like Joab, and if they ask, “What do you want to do?” and they see all the hands say, “I want to be teachers, and doctors, and pilots,” it’s irresistible to want to make sure these children have an education.

DHALIWAL: Have you been to these schools where you’ve seen kids like that?

SPERLING: I certainly have. You know, I can spend a lot of time working behind a desk, but the things that have inspired me most in my life are the moments that I’ve been in the classroom. The first poor school I went to was outside of Dakar. It was just a school for first and second grade. And we asked the second graders if they wanted to ask any questions. And a young man put up his hand and he said, “Yes. Do you think that next year we could have a third grade and a bathroom at our school?”

The idea of a child finishing second grade and all he wants to do is go to third grade! And then that kicker, “Could we have a bathroom?” It had never crossed my mind that there’s not a latrine or bathroom at the school. Those are the moments that just melt you. And it’s why I think this show is so important. You can’t bring everybody to Africa, but a show like this brings these children, their hopes, their faces, their lives to us.

DHALIWAL: Do think that the cause is in need of a hero?

SPERLING: Well, I think this is starting to get more attention. I mean, one thing that was very nice in the Global Campaign for Education was that Angelina Jolie became our spokesperson this year. And, one of the things that motivated her was that she was working on refugees, and she saw how much education was lacking for refugee children.

I think you’re seeing people like Bono starting to step up. I think that both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have taken a leadership role to some degree. Hillary Clinton along with another Congresswoman from New York named Nita Lowey, who’s been a true champion, having put forward an Education For All bill. Laura Bush has spoken passionately about education for girls. There’s opportunity there.

DHALIWAL: Well, getting access is hard enough. So, what is it like if you are displaced, living in a refugee camp, a child with HIV/AIDS, or who’s lost both of their parents?

SPERLING: What’s remarkable is the resilience of young people. You can see young people in the most horrible situations. I’ve been to a school that was just for girls who had been sold by their parents and then recovered in this school — this was in Vietnam. Everybody in this school, run by a couple of nuns, had been sold by their parents, either into prostitution or to some kind of servant position. And, as I went there I expected to see heartbroken children. But when children are together and they’re learning together, for all the trauma and heartbreak, it is a chance for them to regain their childhood. Education is important for all the reasons we mentioned in terms of learning and health. But, I’ll tell you one thing else. It’s also a way for some of the worst-off children to still have some childhood. To still play.

I went to another place in Delhi, where again, it was children who had been taken off the streets. When I went to speak to them, most of these children had run drugs. Some of them had been in prostitution at the ungodly ages of 11 or 12. But again, when I came in, they were all shushing. I asked the teacher why. And she said, “Well, they’ve been promised an extra half-hour of cartoons if they behave while you’re speaking.” The point is: when these children were put in a school setting, they had a chance to regain their childhood. That’s one of the most beautiful and important things that school does.

DHALIWAL: Aside from the United Kingdom, what’s the global report card like for giving to education?

SPERLING: It’s not pretty. I don’t think you’d give the world’s richest countries a passing grade. I think you would acknowledge there’s been some improvement. If you look at rich countries, including the United States, including under the Bush Administration, you’ve seen modest marginal improvement thanks to dedicated members of Congress like Nita Lowey who have pushed each year for another $70 million, another $80 million. But, if you look at the need and you look at what’s promised, you’d have to give the richest countries a failing grade. Going from a very low amount to a slightly less low amount is not the same as meeting your promises. There’s a 100 million children who will not see the inside of a school this year!

DHALIWAL: And who are the worst slackers?

SPERLING: Well, those with the greatest responsibility for failure are the G8 countries, with the exception of the U.K. It’s not that they haven’t made any improvements. It’s just that it’s improvement from such a low level. I like to say and like to believe that education is perhaps just where AIDS was in 1996 or 1997. We’re starting to gain attention, but hopefully shows like this is what will help create a critical mass of support. I really do believe that if people can see the faces of these children and realize how little can go so far that we could have progress. I do believe that this is a critical year. It’s the halfway point in the goal of universal education by 2015. We’ve now had a breakthrough. We’ve had one government, the U.K. under Gordon Brown’s leadership, step up to the plate and actually put in not just a modest, marginal increase, but their share: $1.5 billion a year is the U.K.’s share.

If the U.S. were to put up their share, which would be $2.5 billion or $3 billion, if France and Germany and Italy were to do their share, together we could do something very large. It’s all there and it’s just a matter of will.

DHALIWAL: Can this compact turn into yet another lofty ideal with a passed deadline?

SPERLING: Very easily. Very easily. Right now, if nothing is done, this will be a lofty ideal with a passed deadline. I do think the goal of universal education by 2015 has helped. I think it has motivated some countries to do better. But, I think we’re all realizing that we’ve a long way to go. We’re realizing that the richer countries have not stepped up. We’re realizing that you can have access without quality.

But that is both about smart education reform and it’s about resources. The developing countries have to be willing to do evaluations to make sure their children are learning. But we have to help them with the cost of having teachers, because if in a country like Kenya two million more children means the class sizes go up, well of course quality’s going to go down. Who in the United States would not think the quality of their children’s education would go down, if there were 90 children per teacher?

Again, it can’t be imposed top down. It’s got to be leadership from developing countries. But, when a country is willing to do the right thing, when you see parents who want to do the right thing, I think we ought to be their partners.

DHALIWAL: Why has education so captured your passion and your commitment?

SPERLING: You know, when you go to a poor country and you see a child who for all their poverty simply wants a chance to get an education, what just moves me so much is how badly these children just want a chance to learn.

The little girl in Afghanistan. She gets up at 6 a.m. And works until noon. And she can’t wait to go to school! Neeraj works all day in India. And she can’t wait to go to night school! When you see children so desperately just wanting a chance to learn, to better themselves…and you think about how little it takes.

You know, one PSP, one X-Box that we get for our children could be three children having a quality education for a year. It’s so little. And you can do so much. I guess when I see those children, I can’t help but see our own children. And to me it just seems that we abandon them. We don’t even give them a chance to go to school. We don’t even give them a chance to make something of themselves.

DHALIWAL: Do you remember your first day at school?

SPERLING: I do. I remember my first day at school. But I’ll tell you, there was never a moment in my life where I didn’t think I was going to go to school everyday. There was never a moment in my life I didn’t think I was going to go to college. And there was never a moment where my parents, no matter what their circumstances are, would have ever had the thought that sending me to school was going to cost them 20 percent or 30 percent of their income.

When I think of my own children, I want them to see this documentary because I want them to see how much other children around the world treasure the chance to have a first day at school. Treasure the chance to have the teacher bug them about doing their homework. Treasure the chance to study hard and to learn something. We really take it for granted. One of the things that’s just so moving is to see these young children around the world who are in the poorest and most difficult of circumstances and yet all they want is a chance for an education.

I saw a photograph recently of children in Bali. And they were studying math in a slum under a street lamp at 10 or 11 at night. That’s a picture that speaks a thousand words. And perhaps should motivate a few more dollars from those of us who are well off enough.

I guess the other thing, too, is for someone like me who worked in the Clinton Administration on the U.S. budget. You see how money is spent. You see how it matters. And you realize that for just $2 billion or $3 billion a year, we could be the leaders in the world. We could be regarded everywhere in the world as the champions of global education. People would see that we do think all children are God’s children. Not just to the extent that we have a narrow foreign policy interest. Not just to prevent terrorists. But because we’re a people who believes in the dignity of every person. And that we understand that if you never have a chance to go to school that the consequences are so great.

You can’t cure all of those things with a silver bullet. But education empowers girls everywhere in the world to surmount many of those obstacles of health, of domestic violence, of building a better future. And when you have an educated girl, who then becomes an educated mother, the benefits just flow and flow. And when we let a child drop out of school, we stop that benefit. That $100 a year stops a benefit that could go for generations and generations.

DHALIWAL: As somebody who worked on eight budgets in the White House as President Clinton’s Economic Advisor, talk about why it is so hard to get countries to commit money up front.

SPERLING: When we were in the administration, to be honest, foreign aid was often treated as a dirty word. We spent a lot of time fighting against cuts. Around 1999 and 2000, there was a Jubilee 2000 movement. It changed things. Suddenly there were religious leaders from all sides. Suddenly this became more of a bipartisan issue. And I think that is the one real progress. You now see Democrats and Republicans working together. We saw a Republican President commit a lot of money to AIDS.

So there is a more hopeful future. We are doing more. But on this critical issue of education, which is the foundation for better health, for more peace, for better democracy, we have just fallen dramatically short. It is just a global disgrace.

DHALIWAL: WIDE ANGLE plans to keep going back to check in on the progress of the kids that we saw in the film. What do you predict for their future?

SPERLING: One of the things we’re going to see, which is very disturbing, is that even in a country like Kenya, where we say education is free, it’s usually just free for a primary education. Until fifth, or sixth, or seventh grade. And what you’re going to see is that as kids have to go to middle and high school, it’s going to be harder and harder.

Even though we know that the benefits of education get greater and greater the longer you stay in school, we see that going to school is going to be more and more of a barrier to these children in the poorest countries.

And yet I really cannot look at a single one of those children and look at the spirit they show, and the heart they show, and think that with just a little support, with a little bit of a circle of support around them, that each one of those children couldn’t graduate from high school and be a wonderful success story.

DHALIWAL: You think they’re all going to get there by 2015?

SPERLING: I don’t know that each of these children will. My guess is that without intervention a lot of these children won’t. But what motivates me and what I find so inspiring and heartbreaking is that you can see how easy it would be. How little it would take in terms of a little bit of support: moral, financial support. For each one of the children, with the heart each one had to make it all the way through.

DHALIWAL: And what happens to the millions of kids who don’t make it through school? Contrast their lives for us to the kids who do get an education.

SPERLING: I think you heard it from many of the parents in the documentary. The father in Kenya talks about how everywhere you go people will ask what your education is. Even in farming, it’s been shown that a basic education will increase your productivity. When you’re educated you might be able to learn new farming techniques. You might be able to learn new technology.

And remember something else, too. When you looked at the little girl from Romania, one of the reasons why you didn’t worry as much about her was because her parents were educated. They were going to make sure she did well. Every one of those children who becomes educated becomes an educated parent who then will pass those expectations on to their child and will undoubtedly be willing to bear even greater obstacles to send their child to school.

You do build, with education, a circle of good fortune or a greater hope that is passed on from generation. Look, in the United States today, how many families will sit around the table and talk about the grandparent who struggled? Who came over as an immigrant? Who saved, who went to college, who realized that all of the benefits that they may be experiencing now were because of one person somewhere back who struggled hard to get an education? Well if that’s true here in the United States, you can only imagine how true that is in Kenya or Benin or Afghanistan.

DHALIWAL: Gene Sperling, thank you very much for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

SPERLING: Thank you so much for doing this documentary.

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