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Public education in the United States has been transformed by an accelerating push for free-market, or neoliberal, reforms that tend to result in privatization. The shift in power means elites increasingly decide what is taught and who teaches. The global makeover of education from a public good to a private commodity actually began three decades ago, when the world’s rich and powerful rallied around a new consensus for reshaping economies and schools. Teachers unions have posed the most serious obstacle against privatization and de-funding, and consequently have been the focus of virulent attacks.
According to a 2000-2002 U.N. survey of 132 nations’ public expenditures on education, Cuba rates first at 18.7 percent of GDP. The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu ranks second at 11 percent. The U.S. was tied for 37th place at 5.7 percent. Pakistan ranked 126th at 1.8 percent, Indonesia 130th at 1.2 percent and Equatorial Guinea last at 0.6 percent.
The rate of primary school enrollment in Africa jumped from 39 percent in 1960 to 85 percent in 1982 as the continent’s postcolonial governments invested heavily in education. These successes were reversed during the 1980s and 1990s, due in part to structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that led to deep cuts in education spending. Spending has begun to rebound in recent years, but according to the U.N. Human Development Program, sub-Saharan Africa spends only 2.4 percent of the world’s public education resources despite having 15 percent of the world’s schoolage population.
North America & Western Europe
North American and Western European nations have less than 10 percent of the world’s school-age population but account for 55.1 percent of education spending, meaning more than 30 times as much money is spent on the average school-aged individual in these countries than in Africa.
Gender & Education
In many parts of the world, meager funding of public education leads to gender disparities as families decide to invest scarce resources in educating their sons. According to UNESCO, 112 nations have achieved gender parity in primary education enrollment. However, in 66 countries girls continue to lag behind boys in terms of enrollment, while boys have lower enrollments in only eight countries.
Results from a 2008 UNESCO report on conditions in primary schools in 11 developing nations in South America, North Africa and Asia based on a survey of teachers and principals at 7,600 schools:
Percent of schools with electricity: 97
Percent of schools with running water: 87
Percent with sufficient places to sit: 87
Percent where students can borrow or take books home: 82
Percent of schools that have sufficient toilets: 70
Percent that have libraries: 64
Percent of students with access to computer at school: 57
Percent that have cafeterias: 36
Percent that have audio-visual rooms: 30
Percent that have overhead projectors: 29
Percent that have science labs: 26
Sources: The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and Their Unions co-edited by Mary Compton and Lois Weiner, The Developing World and State Education: Neoliberal Depredation and Egalitarian Alternatives, co-edited by Dave Hill and Ellen Rosskam, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, U.N. Development Program, BBC, misionvenezuela.org.