As a Minnesota businessperson and entrepreneur, I’ve met lots of kids struggling to find their way in the world. I’ve also met many parents hoping to provide their children with every possible opportunity to succeed.
Locally, the truth is that too many of our young people aren’t getting the education they deserve. The achievement gap between white and minority students is not getting better. In fact, it continues to deteriorate, alongside a seemingly lethargic response to what we have determined is a crisis of the will.
One parent recently described the current situation as our kids “drowning while we are all watching.”
When I was a kid growing up in Toledo, Ohio, my junior high school principal would begin each morning with an exhortation over the school’s public address system: “Excellence is our motto. Achievement is our goal.” We need more of that thinking today.
Unfortunately, one of the leading causes of inequality in America is our education system and the lack of a laser focus on excellence and achievement. Underresourced kids aren’t getting the education or inspiration they need to break out of poverty. Better education means more opportunities for advancement and the capacity to escape from the gravitational pull of mediocrity.
If you think growing inequality is a problem, the best place to make a change is giving at-risk kids an opportunity for a better education.
Last summer, I was one of several African-American men who gathered at H. White Men’s Room, a barbershop, cafe and community meeting space in north Minneapolis, to discuss how we could bring about real change. We decided to focus on education choice and economic participation, and we named our effort the Minnesota Harvest Initiative, inspired by the biblical story in which Jesus tells his followers: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” We need more workers and more tools to help our kids succeed.
We believe that giving parents and students a choice about where to go to school is a powerful tool to improve education. I love public schools, but unfortunately results show that not all students are getting the education they need in order to succeed.
I believe that the students who need choices most — often minority and disadvantaged students — deserve an opportunity to receive a great education at the school of their choice.
The Minnesota Harvest Initiative is educating parents about ways we can improve access to good schools. One measure is legislation that is included in the tax bills passed recently by the Minnesota House and Senate called “Opportunity Scholarships.”
Under the legislation, opportunity scholarships would be available to low- and middle-income children to attend a school of their choice. The scholarships would be funded through tax-advantaged private contributions made to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations with 501(c)3 status, and must be approved by the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
These would be private contributions, made to private nonprofits, helping remove financial barriers for students to attend private schools. The proposal would not take any funding away from the more than nearly $18 billion being spent on K-12 public schools in Minnesota (“Taxpayers must not pay for religious education,” April 4).
Similar opportunity scholarship programs exist in 17 states, including Iowa, South Dakota, Arizona and Florida.
Minnesota has traditionally been a leader in school reform, but we have fallen behind. As a result, our state has the largest achievement gap between white students and minorities in the country. That is a crisis of the will that needs to be addressed right now.
We are hopeful that the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton will listen to the voices of minority parents from across our community who are standing together to help our children access the best school for them through opportunity scholarships. Opportunity Scholarships are a lifeline to our kids drowning in mediocrity.
In the “fierce urgency of now,” it is time to actively help more Minnesota students — from all backgrounds and neighborhoods — achieve excellence.
Reynolds-Anthony Harris is a founder of the Minnesota Harvest Initiative and managing partner of Lyceum Partners + design.