Spotlight Exclusives

Promoting Opportunity from Early Childhood to Early Career

Christopher Edley, Jr., Opportunity Institute Christopher Edley, Jr., Opportunity Institute, posted on

Wealth inequality has reached a staggering level in the United States. The share of wealth owned by the very top earners is almost as high as just before the stock market crash of the 1920s. For a country that calls itself the land of opportunity, these numbers are deeply disturbing. More and more elected officials on both sides of the aisle – as well as families and workers – are talking about the need for solutions that promote upward mobility and create ladders out of poverty.

I have long held the belief that education is the key to making opportunity less serendipitous and more systemic for all of us. But narrowly construed, education 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, my colleague Ann O’Leary and I are launching 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.

Our goal is to break the cycles of inequity and poverty that obstruct social and economic mobility, and replace them with an equitable cycle of opportunity.

In this spirit, The Opportunity Institute brings together experts and pre-existing efforts in early education, Pre-K-12 schooling, criminal and juvenile justice, and higher education to collaborate as one organization.

Together, we will work to create strong families and strong institutions. Just as we can’t address these problems one at a time, we need to use all of the tools available to us to put these solutions into action. The Opportunity Institute’s work will span the different levels of government, helping each level to inform the others. We will employ a uniquely broad range of tools – including coalition building, public education campaigns, research, and policy design – to provide ideas and solutions to the opportunity barriers too many children and adults face.

Some examples of the work at The Opportunity Institute include:

  • 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 are shaping public awareness of the importance of early brain development and social-emotional learning among children who have not yet started kindergarten.
  • We will develop pragmatic recommendations in policy and practice to improve higher education and ensure more students complete college.
  • 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.

America is at a moment in time that contains extraordinary possibility to improve social mobility. There is a sustained national, state and local interest in poverty alleviation, social mobility, and education, voiced at dinner tables, legislative chambers, and presidential debates. We must take advantage of this moment, and provide connected solutions that build ladders for success.

Christopher Edley, Jr. is the co-founder of the Opportunity Institute and the Honorable William H. Orrick, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law.

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