To Expand Opportunity, Expand the Promise of Education

by Christopher Edley Jr.

This piece has also been published in The Huffington Post

The fall following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., I joined a new student organization at New Rochelle High School, an economically and demographically mixed New York City suburb. I was on the executive committee of Black Radicals Onward (BRO!), in charge of teaching everyone Swahili. Those were the days. Another student proposed we start collecting dues. I asked what we would do with the money. After some thought, the near-consensus was that we should buy an army tank. I voiced skepticism about the usefulness of a tank in the struggle to lift our people, and also noted that my father would not like a tank in our garage, even if it could fit, and that everyone else lived in the projects. Where would we keep it?

Soon thereafter, I quit.

From there, I quickly pivoted to a belief—that I still hold—that education is the Great Black Hope. It worked for my parents' escape from Jim Crow poverty in Virginia. I have held fast to that belief through my work on domestic and economic policy issues in six presidential campaigns, in two presidential transitions, on two White House staffs, and in 35 years as a professor.

Education is the key to make opportunity less serendipitous and more systemic for all of us. True educational opportunity is the best path to the promised land where difference is not destiny and dreams are not coded by color or class. But narrowly understood, it is not enough.

In a society with staggering rates of childhood poverty, income inequality, and mass incarceration, the work inside the classroom is only one part of the equation. School principals alone cannot tame the vipers and pythons of disadvantage. Children with mental health issues or experience with trauma too often end up on the path to the juvenile or criminal justice system because the linkages between public health and education are weak. The country's education infrastructure is not doing enough to help students graduate from high school and college, and then transition them into good jobs.

To address the range of these barriers, I am now applying my experience and approach to a new endeavor: today, along with my colleague Ann O'Leary, I am announcing the launch of The Opportunity Institute, a new non-profit that aims to advance social mobility and equity from early childhood to early career.

We believe that many, though not all, influential policy makers and advocates are hungry for pragmatic, evidence-based ideas to address some of the most critical barriers to opportunity. The problems of inequality and uneven social mobility are neither federal nor local, neither public nor personal. They are all of these and more. The Opportunity Institute's work will span the different levels of government, helping each level to inform the others. We employ a uniquely broad range of tools - including coalition building, public education campaigns, research, and policy design - to provide ideas and solutions to these problems.

This moment contains extraordinary possibility to improve social mobility. There is a sustained national, state, and local interest in education, voiced at dinner tables, legislative chambers, and presidential debates. We are taking advantage of it in many ways. We are working with multiple states to implement the nation's new charter for K-12 improvement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to ensure new state flexibility leads to improved excellence and equity for students. We will be shaping public awareness of the importance of early brain development and social-emotional learning among children who have not yet started Kindergarten. We are highlighting the need for degree completion and smart family- friendly workplace policies, and offering recommendations to strengthen outcomes for students and families. And we will be working to repair the damage wrought by mass incarceration by using education to create better opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, their children, and their families.

I haven't lost my militant optimism, nor my pragmatic approach to large social issues. Education for all of our citizens trumps tanks or anger as a solution to the problems before us. I invite you to join us in our approach. No dues required.