01/29/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

State of the Union 2014: Building an Opportunity Nation

"And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all - the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead."
President Obama, State of the Union 2014.

Last night's State of the Union address and the official Republican response underscored a harsh truth. Without dramatic improvements to the ways we support children and young people; educate and train them for good jobs; help working families get ahead; and strengthen the economy for the vast majority of Americans who have seen their wages and quality of life stagnate, America will simply not be able to compete. Our communities and neighborhoods will suffer. We will all be left behind.

Though opportunity was the central theme of the evening for both President Obama and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the GOP response, the inability of their respective parties to take action and work together is inexcusable, especially when there is alignment on key issues.

It is clear that we can't let this inaction continue. Here are some initiatives highlighted by President Obama that are also reflected in Opportunity Nation's Shared Plan to Restore Opportunity to Young Adults. We believe these steps will help more people achieve the American Dream and several have received bipartisan support:

  • Redesign American high schools. Opportunity Nation's diverse coalition believes that secondary education must be redesigned to emphasize science, technology, math and science - the STEM fields; help more students graduate from high school; and ensure students gain the skills and knowledge they need to get good jobs. There must be multiple pathways to graduation, including alternative programs for working students and teen parents; internships that pay a stipend and allow students to earn credit; and dual-enrollment programs in which students can earn college credit while still in high school. We also support updating and reauthorizing the Career and Technical Education Act.
  • Expand and improve job training for young people. We must ensure that our students are gaining the skills and education they need to get good jobs and embark on meaningful careers. We hope that President Obama's proposal to launch a review of existing programs will include a pay-for-performance component that will reward programs that serve their clients well. We support his proposed expansion of apprenticeships as a vital pathway to jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. We also applaud closer collaboration with business leaders to ensure our schools, community colleges and technical schools are teaching the skills most in need in key industries, including health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing.
  • Make college more affordable and expand access to post-secondary education. We support efforts to enroll low-income Americans in college, and we support the bipartisan American Dream Accounts Act that would pair college savings accounts with financial planning for low-income students and their families. But we want to make sure that access to all forms of post-secondary education - apprenticeships, certificate programs and two-year degrees - are expanded, as many good-paying "middle-skill" jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. Unless we invest in the skills of our young people, we will be unable to fill 5 million good jobs by 2020.
  • Connect 20 million more students and 1,500 schools to high-speed Internet and next-generation connectivity. Technology and Internet access are essential tools to expand opportunity, from applying to jobs to taking online courses.
  • Government can't do this alone. Many Republican leaders, including Rep. McMorris Rogers, emphasize that the government cannot solve all our country's major problems on its own. We agree, but it can sometimes have a productive role to play. Community groups, educational institutions, volunteers, employers and nonprofits must also be part of the solution.

Expanding opportunity is simply too important to become a casualty of partisanship and divisiveness.

This is where the power of the Opportunity Nation coalition and other like-minded Americans comes in. Our over 300 coalition partners and the 100 million Americans they represent know it will take all of us - Democrat and Republican; urban and rural; public, private and nonprofit sectors - working together to rebuild the ladder of upward mobility. And we'll keep pushing our leaders to get on board and join us in these important efforts.

Both President Obama and Rep. McMorris Rodgers recognize that we must act now if we are to restore the American Dream for all of us. Rep. McMorris Rodgers described the yawning opportunity gap our country faces:

".... Our mission -- not only as Republicans, but as Americans, is to once again ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become...That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It's the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be."

Where we are is a politically divided country. Where we want to be is a land of opportunity. As President Obama said, "opportunity is who we are" as a nation. Let's finally work together and get there.

Mark Edwards is the Executive Director of Opportunity Nation, a national, bipartisan and cross-sector campaign of over 300 organizations focused on expanding opportunity and economic mobility to more Americans.