09/04/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Bridging the 'Opportunity Gap': Ensuring Pathways to Quality Education for All Children

More than a half-century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Cesar Chavez: "Our separate struggles are really one," he wrote. "A struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity."

It is a good reminder as we mark the Sept. 15 beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, and last week's 50th anniversary of Dr. King's march on Washington: This struggle toward freedom, dignity and humanity is the American struggle, a dream of equal opportunity for all, and a deeply human desire to leave our children a better world than the one we found.

This American dream is most certainly the Latino dream. Latino identity is rooted not in what is good for me as an individual, but what is good for us, la familia. When you consider an American future that looks increasingly Latino -- Hispanics account for 1 in 5 school age children today, and will make up more than 30 percent of the total U.S. population by 2050 -- this dream of creating a better future for Latino children should be of equal importance to us all.

Education, of course, is among the most critical pathways to economic opportunity for all children. It's one reason Target, has made education the center of our giving strategy. By the end of 2015, Target will have invested more than $1 billion in education, based on fundamental beliefs:

  • That every child deserves a quality education, regardless of race or socio-economic status;
  • That a quality education is critical to U.S. global economic competitiveness; by 2020, 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require some form of post-secondary education;
  • And that current U.S. graduation rates are not nearly good enough -- especially for our African-American (66.1 percent) and Latino (71.4 percent) populations.

Closing this achievement gap is key to our future prosperity, in fact some -- including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- have started referring to it as the "opportunity gap." Because as we consider the challenges of competing in a global economy, the American opportunity simply must include the pathway to a quality education for all.

For Latinos, there is already much to celebrate here. Since just 2006, graduation rates among Latino students have climbed more than 10 percentage points. And according to a July report from the Education Trust, Latino enrollment in college grew by 22 percent from 2009 to 2011.

We still have a long way to go. Graduation rates for Hispanics may be rising, they are not keeping up with demographic changes. We cannot talk about Latinos' access to a quality education, their ability to compete, or their economic opportunity as if these things were somehow separate from our own. Today's school-age Latinos are tomorrow's workforce, innovators, scientists, doctors, customers, teachers, and business and community leaders. Our future is their future.

I've just come from San Antonio, and the latest in a series of what Target and the Points of Light Foundation call "Sunday Suppers." These were inspired by Dr. King, who believed we could come together -- across lines of race, religion, party and socio-economic status -- to share a common table, find common ground, and build common sense solutions. In San Antonio, we talked about education as a pathway to economic opportunity, and the role that service can play in that context. It was an extraordinary conversation.

I am reminded of advice I once received from Coretta Scott King, who shared her husband's dreams. She said, "Surround yourself with people who don't look like you, act like you, or think like you." She said our differences should be leveraged as a strategic advantage that binds us and makes us better -- not something that divides us.

And there is no better place to come together than around the supper table. We all have our traditions. For me, my favorite Sunday suppers looked like the whole extended family gathered at my grandma's for a spread of chicken and dumplings, baked mac and cheese, and the most amazing greens and cornbread you've ever tasted. Whatever the menu at your house may have been, across cultures the spirit is the same. We come together around a shared table, and we season our conversation with respect, and an eye toward those common sense solutions that will help create a better world for our children.