Over the summer, I attended an economic mobility conference, co-sponsored by A Minnesota Without Poverty and St. Catherine University. The keynote speaker, Erin Currier, director of mobility research at The Pew Charitable Trusts, presented her department’s recent research on who in America is moving up the economic ladder, and how. The research shows that economic mobility—the ability to move up or down the economic ladder within a lifetime, or from one generation to the next—is fundamental to achieving the so-called American Dream.

Dr. Currier’s charts and graphs showed that most Americans raised in the lower rungs of the economic ladder remain there. Those households that successfully move out of poverty tend to have three things in common:

  1. Assets (a home, retirement savings, etc.);
  2. Dual income earners;
  3. Post-secondary college degrees.

After the presentation, we discussed possible solutions to Minnesota's gaps—gaps that many of us know all too well—with others at our tables.

At my table, the conversation quickly turned to education, which we all agreed must be a top priority. My tablemates, who were from affluent western suburbs, asserted that individual communities and parents need to step up to help raise funds for programming, additional teachers and technology needs. One woman stated proudly that her PTA raised more than $150,000 through a recent book sale. Another woman added that parents at her kids' school raised more than $350,000 in the last year, through charitable contributions from parents’ employers and social fundraisers.

I was genuinely impressed, but quickly thought of my kids' inner-city public school, with 87 percent kids of color and 78 percent of kids on free or reduced school lunches. It’s unlikely, if not impossible, that parents at our school could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars. After all, my school’s PTA has roughly $25,000 to work with during the school year.

Right there at my table was a real life example of Minnesota's gaps in public education: before the school day even starts, there are significant inequities at play. The conversation at my table also highlighted a significant belief gap. My tablemates didn’t know how different my kids’ school was from theirs, and once they did, they couldn’t believe how my kids could be successful in such a setting.

We can't ensure every Minnesota kid grows up to own a home, and earn enough income to build savings and a retirement fund. However, we can and must provide all Minnesota kids access to quality public schools, where high expectations and talented teachers inspire them to stay the course, complete high school and attend a trade school, community college, or four-year college—if not more. And if we prepare all kids for success in school, I believe the other predictors of economic mobility will follow.

The research is out and we know what it takes to break generational cycles of poverty, to move low-income households into the middle class and beyond. It all starts with education. 

Until we believe in all kids and schools, and ensure equitable distribution of resources while holding the same high standards for schools serving low-income kids and students of color as we do for those in affluent suburbs, the infamous gaps and inequities will continue. The task is in our collective hands, to stand up and demand equity in our schools. With education reform organizations like MinnCAN and the Promise Neighborhoods initiatives in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I believe we can get there, and many Minnesota public schools are already proving that we can. However, organizations alone do not make lasting change—people do. Together, we can make progress toward a more equitable Minnesota. Together, we can narrow the gaps and widen the circle of success to include all kids. 

Jill Henricksen is a parent of two sons who attend first and third grades in St. Paul Public Schools.


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