Schools have long been championed as places where we can level the playing field for low-income children. Unfortunately, that leveling doesn’t happen very often. Instead, schools have become the epicenter of not only the achievement gap, but also the opportunity gap— the inequitable distribution of resources and quality opportunities that contribute to the achievement gap.   

The authors of a recent Manhattan Institute (MI) policy brief discuss how income stagnation and inequality can limit opportunities for kids. Specifically, the brief references “the vastly different pathways available to students from different backgrounds.” To be fair, these gaps don’t exist just because of schools. But as Robert Putnam argues in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, “Even if schools didn’t cause the growing opportunity gap—and there’s little evidence that they have—they might well be a prime place to fix it.”

So how do we get schools to take on the opportunity gap? What can we do? My colleague, Mike Petrilli, has tackled this question before and emphasizes the importance of social capital. Putnam, on the other hand, emphasizes monetary capital; he advocates allocating money to schools for the exclusive goal of ending the opportunity gap. He sums it up simply and wistfully: “I would love to have competitions among school districts for narrowing the opportunity gap.” One thing Mike and Putnam agree on is that extracurricular activities are a powerful tool for closing the opportunity gap. Putnam points out that extracurricular activities were “invented in American schools, by social reformers, for the purpose of training kids in what we now call soft skills.” Mike, meanwhile, suggests that the “secret sauce” of American education—what makes Americans innovative free thinkers—is what happens after school.   

Putnam takes the connection between schools and the opportunity gap to a new level when he mentions that schools are starting to charge students for extracurricular participation. We’ve seen this right here in Ohio: The Columbus Dispatch recently highlighted Ohio officials who want to end pay-to-play because of its burden on low-income families. When families can’t pay, kids miss out on opportunities that can significantly impact college admissions and academic performance. Even worse, some schools cease offering opportunities at all. In short, despite public awareness of the widening gap between rich and poor, opportunities that could help close that gap are either financially out of reach or becoming so for many families.

The kinds of opportunities Mike and Putnam advocate for don’t exclusively take place after school hours. Jay Greene has conducted research on the educational value of field trips and found that enriching field trips lead students to improve critical thinking, increase factual knowledge (which is really important for elementary kids), and improve non-academic skills such as historical empathy and tolerance. Most importantly, Greene’s findings indicate that the benefits are generally much larger for students from less advantaged backgrounds. Unfortunately, Greene also reported that culturally enriching field trips are in decline: A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11.

Reasons for the decline are complex and varied. One reason is finances. Greene points out that policymakers must consider “whether schools have the sufficient resources” to increase opportunities like tours of cultural institutions. Considering that many cash-strapped schools are also academically low-performing and often populated by low-income and minority students, this should set off warning bells for advocates of equity: Opportunities like field trips and extracurriculars can improve academic and non-academic skills for less advantaged students, but if families and schools can’t pay for them, are low-income kids just out of luck?

Education savings accounts (ESAs) could be a solution. When policymakers think about ESAs, Nevada's program probably comes to mind. The program, which was passed in 2015 and will launch in 2016, is the nation’s fifth ESA program but the first universal one. It allows parents with children enrolled in a public or charter school to apply for an ESA that contains a percentage of what the state pays for the child’s education. Parents can then use these funds for education-related expenses from approved organizations including private schools, virtual schools, and tutoring facilities. Parents can also purchase supplemental materials and special needs services, or pay for fees associated with tests like AP exams or the ACT and SAT.

Despite their potential, ESAs have been politically divisive. Considering recent battles over Common Core and charter schools, Ohio policymakers may be reluctant to start a battle over ESAs. But the Buckeye State doesn’t have to craft an ESA program identical to Nevada’s—in fact, Nevada’s program only allows ESAs to be used for after-school or summer activities if students opt out of public school. Ohio’s ESA, on the other hand, should allow students to stay enrolled in their traditional public or charter school and still receive funds via the ESA. A good model might be Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program. Rather than using funds to pay for private school tuition, low-income families could apply for and receive assistance to mitigate the effects of the opportunity gap without ever leaving their public school. Funds that are housed in an ESA could be spent via a restricted-use debit card that applies only to state-approved programs. These programs don’t need to be limited to traditional museum tours or ending pay-to-play fees for athletics and clubs both inside and outside of school. There are plenty of other great experiences that kids can benefit from.

Instead of looking the other way as low-income families struggle to give their kids the same opportunities that affluent families take for granted, let’s address the need. After all, the beauty of challenging the opportunity gap isn’t just that low-income children may finally have equal opportunities. Taking on the opportunity gap also allows us to start attacking the achievement gap from a different angle—which just might help schools improve student achievement. 

Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

View Full Bio