03/17/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated May 17, 2013

The Wealth Gap Is an Opportunity Gap

A wealth gap in communities across the country continues to grow, while public policy officials grapple with how to close a troubling and persistent educational achievement gap. Meanwhile, a similar gap in civic engagement among low-income families and families of color in our community speaks to why policy-makers have done so little to address the issues that create these gaps in the first place. In these areas, we are only treading water.

Montgomery County, Maryland could be used as a case study to evaluate these three gaps and their relationship to each other. Our county is an affluent community, located just outside of the Nation's Capital; however, like so many local jurisdictions, we have a burgeoning wealth divide. We see growing numbers of residents who struggle to pay rent, who are food insecure, and who live on the edge. We also recognize that we have a stubborn and widening educational achievement gap.

In a recently released report, Dr. Peter Shapiro, Brandeis University's Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, states "Public policies play a major role in widening the already massive racial wealth gap, and they must play a role in closing it. We should be investing in prosperity and equity, instead we are advancing toxic inequality."

Dr. Shapiro found that home ownership, household income, a college education, inheritance, financial supports by family and friends, and preexisting family wealth are some of the policy drivers that impact the inequality found between African American families and white families. The huge gap in household wealth that now exists, according to the study, "cannot be attributed to personal ambition and behavioral choices, but rather reflects policies and institutional practices that create different opportunities for whites and African Americans."

The seeds of this racial wealth gap are sown when an educational system allows an achievement gap to take root and persist. Montgomery County has the largest school system in Maryland, and more and more of our children are in need of assistance. With nearly 149,000 students, 32 percent receive free and reduced-price meals (FARMS), an indicator of poverty, 13 percent receive ESOL, and 11.7 percent receive special education services.

As Chair of the County Council's Education Committee, I requested that our Office of Legislative Oversight study the implications of the achievement gap in 2008 and produce a second report measuring how far we have come. Issued on March 12, the report, The Achievement Gap in Montgomery County -- A FY13 Update, reveals that the gap is stubborn and has indeed widened among the measures of higher-order performance such as SAT and Advanced Placement scores where Montgomery County Public Schools has focused its resources. This report found the largest achievement gaps occurred among the three at-risk measures reviewed: out of school suspensions, academic ineligibility, and dropout rates. For example, black students were three to six times as likely as their white counterparts to demonstrate at-risk behaviors and students receiving free and reduced priced meals were twice as likely as non-FARMS or all students to experience these outcomes.

One of the initiatives I spearheaded to deal with this inequity is called the Kennedy Cluster Project, which is a joint effort between Montgomery County Government and the Montgomery County Public Schools to create a service delivery model for African American students. In this school cluster, we focus on out of school time beginning in elementary school and follow students through graduation. A project team works collaboratively to eliminate communication barriers between and among the school system and county departments like Health and Human Services and the Recreation Department to identify the services necessary to address the root causes and barriers that inhibit or discourage African American students from achieving their full academic potential.

In addition to identifying changes and services that may be needed within the schools, the Kennedy Cluster project team develops and provides recommendations on the coordinated services needed to complement educational services in the project area.

The Kennedy Cluster Project has been one of the most eye-opening and important legislative initiatives that the County Council has passed during my tenure. One of its major outcomes is a new memorandum of understanding among agencies that allows information about students and their families who are in need of services to be shared. This is an innovative approach.

As part of this project, we also learned that this cluster of schools had the county's second highest number of foreclosures, clearly illustrating the connection between the wealth gap and the achievement gap.

Finally, the gap in civic engagement among low-income families and families of color in our county speaks to why so little has been done to address issues that are paramount in these communities. These families are still underrepresented in civic life, and this gap is not closing.

According to the non-profit policy group Demos, "Low-income Americans are voting at the highest rates since the mid-1960s but they are still underrepresented in civic life and struggle to be heard in the political process. They are also less likely to contribute to political campaigns or a range of other political activities. Depressed rates of political participation, and the huge role of money in politics, carry major downsides for lower-income populations and is of economic consequence."

However, the electoral power of the current majority/minority status of Montgomery County is growing as new leaders emerge that represent the voices of these residents. But we need to do more to engage our whole community to find solutions to these troubling gaps.

We must speak out until these issues are part of a daily discussion among policy makers and advocates. In our silence, we are part of the shame of a society that looks the other way hoping that the problem of breathtaking inequality will take care of itself.

We have to do more than tread water. The sense of urgency is great. A new wave of civic engagement in communities of color is necessary to move this agenda forward. It is the only way that opportunity for all will be attainable.