The fate of efforts to get all the world's children in school by 2015 rests with heads of states meeting next week in Canada.
The G8 summit - for the seven wealthiest nations plus Russia - follows last week's meeting of finance ministers which shrank from committing desperately-needed funds to the initiative amid US opposition.
Leading finance ministers endorsed the World Bank's Education for All plan, which maps out an aggressive timetable for dealing with the estimated 125 million children currently outside school. However, they failed to provide the money to get the scheme off the ground at their G7 meeting in Halifax, Canada.
The World Bank stepped up pressure on industrialised nations to commit the $3bn (pound;2bn) a year needed to kick-start the initiative. Last week it named 18 nations whose plans for universal primary education have been approved and need immediate funding.
But observers said US opposition scuttled hopes that the world's wealthiest nations would put their financial muscle behind the scheme. "The US continues to be something of a stumbling block. It seems determined to go it alone," said Oxfam's Oliver Buston.
White House officials told The TES this week that America favoured unilateral education aid.
"We have serious concerns that the fast-track programme downplays the crucial importance of country leadership essential for improved learning outcomes," a US government source said.
President Bush has earmarked $392m for international education initiatives next year, doubling 2001 funding, the official said. "Our education funding will be allocated consistent with our commitment to providing support for countries that have made sound policy choices and meaningful budget commitments in education, in this position we will take the bank's analysis into account."
The objections left President Clinton's former economic advisor, Gene Sperling, now director of the Center for Universal Education, puzzled. "The entire World Bank plan is that, before funding, countries must own and develop accountable, performance-based plans - to suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the global compact on education."
Oliver Buston said America's separatist stance represented a throwback to discredited piecemeal approaches to international aid that were frequently hijacked by politicians and failed to get results. US aid would be better deployed within a multinational effort, he added.
Hopes for sponsorship of the World Bank plan are now riding on the G8 leaders' summit taking place near Calgary, next Wednesday and Thursday, before which global education campaigners hope the US can be won over.
"Until the heads of state meet, the jury is still out. They ultimately call the shots," said Mr Sperling. US support could determine "whether a real global commitment to education emerges or this becomes just another empty promise", he added.
In their joint communique last week, finance ministers resolved to work to support the Education for All goals with countries that have credible education plans and strong policy commitments. But Amina Ibrahim, Nigeria's Education for All co-ordinator, said such words had a hollow ring without cash.
Just 40 per cent of children attend primary school and more than 70 million adults are illiterate in Nigeria, Ms Ibrahim said.
Calling for co-ordinated international action, she implicated lack of education in global unrest and terrorism. "You have to pay particular attention to education," she said. "Most of the problems we have in Nigeria are the product of rich, idle minds using the poor as fodder to cause internal strife and conflict."