Last week, at the National Urban League Conference in Boston, Bill Gates and Dr. Henry Louis Gates had a conversation about education. Bill Gates, in his remarks, said that “a child’s success in school should not depend on the race or income of parents” and that “poverty cannot be an excuse for a poor education.”
Henry Louis Gates countered many would argue “that other structural issues, like poverty, fair housing, [and] stable employment must be tackled before we can expect to see different educational outcomes in low income communities and among children of color.”
Since the founding of this nation, there have been what Jonathan Kozol passionately and accurately calls “savage inequalities” in America’s educational system.
For years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided millions of dollars to fund the search for effective models to improve public education for the poor. Thus far, the search has not been fruitful. And, for at least as many years, Henry Louis Gates and the Urban League have addressed the endemic social and economic factors that inarguably link poverty and educational outcomes.
What is clear to me, and probably to you, as well, is that both men are right. Unfortunately, we have never had the sustained political will in this country to either ensure that all children have access to high-quality education, or that their families and communities are freed from the structural and institutional barriers that prevent them from achieving economic security and realizing educational success.
If I had been on stage with these two men, I would have echoed Bill Gates’ belief that income level need not determine a child’s educational success. There are huge obstacles that face low-income families, but even the poorest family can set and meet realistically high expectations for academic achievement. At FUEL we have shown this is possible.
We have shown it is possible by providing accessible education and support for low-income parents, so that they are prepared to navigate the path to college. Through our financial literacy and matched savings program, families at any income level can save money and defray college expenses.
By engaging low-income parents in their children’s educations, we’re able to make progress within a broken and biased system—one family at a time. While this may not be the catchall solution that either Gates is looking for, it makes a real difference in the lives of families that have few other options.
—Photo Steven Senne / AP