What’s Left: Investing in Opportunity

Alex Tiktinsky

Equal opportunity is the indispensable partner of the American Dream. In order for our society to fully capitalize on its capacity for greatness, every American needs access to not only the essentials of survival but also the essentials of opportunity. Education is the most critical component of this latter group. High-quality schooling allows people to better achieve their potential by providing them with the tools they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is crucial to recognize education as a launch pad, not merely a “handout;” it does not guarantee success, but without it, all but the most talented and motivated are doomed to nurse unrealized dreams. By providing children with mechanisms for success, we can allow a greater percentage of each generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders to realize their potential, which is good for individuals as well as our economy and society. We only have the ability to continue to lead the world if we increase the degree to which we utilize our intellectual resources. We can only achieve this by making better education available to all generations.

Connecticut boasts an Ivy League university and the best private and public schools in the nation, but is also home to America’s largest educational achievement gap, according to National Assessment for Educational Progress data compiled in November 2013. In the Greater New Haven area, 17 percent of low-income students are reading at grade level. Because our school systems are largely locally funded and administered, the parallel between Connecticut’s vast achievement gap and its high level of inequality is no coincidence. Economic inequality is a natural and positive symptom of capitalistic ambition in isolation and at moderate levels, but it becomes counterproductive when it precludes access to equal opportunity. Because our most disadvantaged communities often have only themselves to turn to for improvement, opportunity does not increase but stagnates dangerously, creating poverty traps, the greatest casualty of which is the failure of young people to realize their potential. If Albert Einstein, Bill Gates or Walt Disney had been born in inner city school districts, the world might never have been touched by their genius. We should not prevent the next generation of doers, thinkers and miracle-workers from helping our country by failing to hand them the tools they need.

But our education woes aren’t only the results of uneven distribution of funds; they’re also the consequences of a dated and mismanaged system. It is imperative that we change federal policy to address our education problems. The first step is increasing the efficiency and availability of education-specific funding and guidance available to states. We need to spend more intelligently and in more innovative ways. We should not only allow all students access to basic resources such as books and supplies, but also provide other vital parts of a 21st-century education, including advanced placement and special education programs, hands-on exercises, field trips and techno-literacy programs. We must take the important step of increasing teacher compensation. By incentivizing the brightest of our generation to become educators, we can ensure that the next generation has access to higher-quality teaching. Federal support for mandatory preschool programs should be one of our next big steps, since early learning has been shown by Washington State’s Department of Early Learning to have a profound effect on the ability of students to excel. The federal government must provide additional grants and low-interest loans to students who have worked hard but for whom cost is a barrier to higher education. Perhaps we could increase access to graduate programs for burgeoning doctors and lawyers by paying for law or medical school in exchange for a few years of contract-bound service as public defenders or doctors in struggling communities. By adopting and improving national standards such as the recently-developed and already partially implemented Common Core, we can keep track of which districts need help and allocate resources accordingly.

At the end of the day, the federal government is not the enemy of freedom – it can and must supply essential resources to schools in districts that have failed to provide their students with adequate opportunities. It will not trample on the rights of states and local governments but rather secure the rights of individuals to pursue success on their own terms. The time for political action to secure the right to quality education is not next year or next week; the time for action is now. The American Dream lies in the promise of opportunity, and we must not let that dream die by turning our backs on the next generation.

Contact Alex Tiktinsky at [email protected].