It's been a little over five years since a financial crisis pushed our economy to the brink of disaster. Thankfully we didn't fall into the abyss, but the recovery hasn't been equally shared among all Americans. While long term unemployment remains perilously high and middle class families struggle to pay their bills, a fortunate few enjoy unprecedented prosperity.
It's not our imagination; inequality in America really is growing wider. In fact, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality recently reported that the U.S. now ranks third among all advanced nations in the level of income inequality. This dangerous trend threatens our country's stability and one of our most important values—our commitment to equal opportunity for every person. That's why President Obama recently called inequality the most serious threat to the American Dream.
The most important thing we can do to restore equal opportunity in our nation is strengthen public education. Most educators work hard and do a great job, but we can't do everything that's necessary by ourselves. Here are three ways that every American can help:
1. Get involved in your local school. If you are a parent or grandparent, attend meetings with teachers and join the PTA. Even if you don't have a child in school, you might be able to help by tutoring students, planting a garden, fixing up the playground or ball fields. Some communities have special days for volunteers to paint or do other projects at schools. Find a way to get involved.
2. Do something to help kids in your community. There are now 17 states in which at least half of the public school students come from low-income families, and they have a lot more needs than teachers and other school staff can meet. These children need mentors, they need coaches, they need programs that offer constructive activities in their neighborhoods. Sometimes they need health care, or their families need food pantries. There are a lot of ways to help—just do something!
3. This is an election year. Don't assume that every candidate supports public education, because some don't. There is a powerful push today for a corporate takeover of our schools, and some politicians back this agenda. Ask candidates whether they will work with educators to help students succeed. Demand that all schools have adequate resources to give every student the kind of education they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century. You might even want to check out NEA's EducationVotes.org, which follows education issues.
Whatever you do, don't sit out this election just because it's not a presidential year. Too many people did that in 2010—especially young voters—and some states wound up with governors and legislatures that have proven hostile to public education.
As the world recently mourned Nelson Mandela and reflected on his amazing accomplishments, I was especially moved by his words about poverty: "Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice."
That statement rings true for gross inequality, too. Narrowing the huge gaps between Americans isn’t just a nice thing to do—it's the right thing to do, the only just course of action. It can only happen if we all do our part to provide equal opportunities in education.