Nearly 50 million U.S. elementary and secondary students have headed back to school this week for the start of a new school year. These children and young people will head to class carrying backpacks and an immeasurable, invisible weight -- their parents' hopes that they will acquire valuable skills and knowledge and, armed with a good education, move upward on the ladder of economic mobility.
But not all of these students will get a fair shot. Low-income children born today in Canada and a dozen European countries stand a better chance of improving their lot in life than low-income children born in the United States.
Mounting evidence shows that the American Dream is increasingly out of reach, and that geography too often determines one's destiny. Studies show that neighborhoods and schools with higher concentrations of poverty provide fewer opportunities for their residents and students.
American schoolchildren are, on average, poorer than they were a decade ago, with 45 percent of all children now living in low-income households. The National Center for Education Statistics finds that about 20 percent of all public school students attended a high-poverty school in 2010-11, compared with 12 percent a decade earlier. This percentage is much higher in urban centers, where the vast majority of children attend high-poverty schools.
Opportunity in America is shrinking, not expanding. We can and must do better.
Three years ago, Opportunity Nation partnered with nonpartisan Measure of America, to create the Opportunity Index. This tool is updated annually and measures 16 factors that contribute to a region's capacity to provide opportunity to its residents in three domains: economic, educational and civic. These are the pillars that make mobility possible.
Nationally, only 32 percent of 4-year-olds and 8 percent of 3-year-olds are served by state preschool, and state support for such programs declined by $60 million in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
High school graduation rates are climbing, reaching nearly 75 percent. But that number is far lower in most of the country's urban centers that serve disproportionately high numbers of disadvantaged children.
And 41.1 percent of U.S. adults aged 25 and older have an associate degree or higher, well below the goal of 55 percent advocated by the College Board. We know that by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some form of post-secondary education. According to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, unless we ramp up educational attainment levels, we are on track to fall short by five million jobs.
Perhaps the most powerful finding of the Opportunity Index is the effect of disconnected youth on a region's Opportunity Index Score. The lower the number of young people ages 16-24 who are not in school and not working, the higher the region's capacity to expand economic mobility, and thus its Index Score.
Currently 6.7 million youth are not in school and not working, a tragic loss to them personally and to our nation as a whole. Education is the key to breaking this negative cycle.
As the new school year begins, I encourage you to visit opportunityindex.org. Enter your zip code to find out how your region is constricting or advancing opportunity.
Organizations around the country are working to expand opportunity, and we are proud to call 250 of them the Opportunity Nation coalition. We can all raise public awareness about the economic, educational and civic factors that expand opportunity and reach out to public officials to support programs and laws that work. It will take all of us, working together, to jumpstart the American Dream for the rising generation.
Expanding opportunity and increasing economic mobility for more Americans, particularly our children and young adults, is the key to advancing our country's global competitiveness and strengthening our civil society. A growing body of research and tools like the Opportunity Index offer powerful evidence that living in different communities means having vastly different levels of mobility, a disparity that hurts all of us.
This post is part of the ongoing coverage co-produced by The Huffington Post and Opportunity Nation, highlighting solutions to the country's growing opportunity gap. The coverage utilizes the latter's Opportunity Index, the nation's first -- and only -- tool that measures the impact a geographic place has on each individual's economic mobility. It identifies a comprehensive set of indicators that, when taken together, measure the amount of opportunities available in communities. To see all the coverage so far, click here.