Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What it takes to close the opportunity gap in Washington state

July 15, 2016

There is an unconscionable disparity in access to the broad community resources needed for all children to be academically successful. Resources like universal healthcare, affordable housing and living-wage jobs. Resources like accessible public transportation, a robust public library system and high-quality afterschool programs with hands-on learning. Resources that not all students have access to—that is the opportunity gap.

A more equitable society would offer those resources to every student, focusing first on the places where resources have been lacking or denied, in order to intentionally close the opportunity gap.

When we look at the big picture, we see that:

Schools can’t (and shouldn’t) do it alone.
Teachers aren’t to blame.
We have to work together.

Poverty and its results—lack of affordable housing, economic and food insecurity, health issues, and limited family assets—force instability, uncertainty, and anxiety on people struggling to overcome these challenges. Instability means that students change schools many times during the school year, and each time they change schools, they fall four to six months behind their peers. Add to this the constant worry over where they will sleep at night or where their next meal will come from, and you can imagine how hard it must be to focus in the classroom.

Compounding these issues, students of color and low income students are segregated into high poverty school districts or high poverty schools within high income districts—like Seattle. In some cases, we even see a school within a school—one track for affluent and white students, and a separate track, with separate courses, expectations and teachers, for low-income students and students of color.

Did you read Catch-22 in high school? A sophomore in a Highline high school told me an updated version about the opportunity gap. He had been missing too many classes, and was in danger of being kicked out of school. He was couch surfing while his mom waited to see if they were approved for an apartment after escaping domestic violence. He wanted to talk to a therapist or social worker about what was going on, but the school didn’t have one. Instead, he was told that he could stop coming to school and go to juvenile jail, where he would have access to a therapist and educational courses, plus a bed and meals. The resource—the opportunity—he was offered wasn’t support or community services, it was jail.

Homelessness and foster students

As with the student above, domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness for women and children. Other families may be facing hard times because of overwhelming medical bills, or a young person may be kicked out of their home because their parents don’t approve of their sexual identity. In the 2014-15 school year, over 35,000 public school students were homeless—that’s enough to fill over 500 school busses.[1] Because of difficulty identifying homeless students, the true number is likely higher, and the numbers of homeless children including dropouts, infants and toddlers may be as high as 53,000.[2]

Students experiencing homelessness are significantly behind their peers in both math and reading, and homelessness is far more likely to affect students of color.[3] As a result, less than half of homeless students graduate from high school in four years, compared to nearly 80 percent of their peers.[4]

Similarly, a child placed in foster care is likely to switch schools at least three times.[5] With each move, a student in foster care falls behind in credits, loses important school connections, and is denied the crucial stability that a single school provides.

Students of Color Face Additional Barriers 

Forty percent of Washington State’s children live in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line, and a disproportionate number of these are children of color.[6] In Seattle, taking into account housing, food and transportation, a typical family at that income level would fall $1,500 to $3,000 behind on bills every month.[7] Washington State also has the fifth biggest opportunity gap between black and white students in the United States, and the gap between Hispanic and White students in Washington – about two and a half grade levels – is nearly as large.

This opportunity gap is especially troubling if you believe that education is the primary vehicle for lifting children out of poverty.

Not a safety net, but a network

Schools, along with policy makers, community organizations, shelters, parents, social services, courts, housing and transportation can, by working together, improve the lives of Washington’s most valuable residents—our children. Poverty wasn’t created overnight, and it wasn’t created in a vacuum; we can choose to expand opportunities for low-income students, homeless and foster students, and students of color so that all our kids have a fair and equitable opportunity to reach their full potential.

[1] Federal law considers students homeless if they lack a fixed, regular, adequate, nighttime residence. This definition includes children living in shelters, on the streets, or temporarily living with others due to lack of alternative accommodations. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(A) (2002); 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(B) (2002).

[2] Melissa Ford Shah et al., Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., Homeless and Unstably Housed K-12 Students in Washington State, at 2 (2015).The following report indicated that in 2011-12, DSHS identified 53 percent more homeless students (42,038) than schools (27,390) that year. If we take 53 percent and apply it to the total number of homeless students identified in 2014-15 (35,111) we get an estimated total number of 53,609.

[3] See Dan Newell et al., Wash. State Superintendent of Pub. Instruction Report to the Legislature., 2013-14 Demographics Spreadsheet, (2015),

[4] See Robin G. Munson et al. Wash. State Superintendent of Pub. Instruction, Graduation and Dropout Statistics Annual Report at 3, 7 (2015).

[5] Casey Family Programs, Foster Care by the Numbers (Sept. 2011),

[6] Kids Count Data Ctr., Children Below 200 Percent Poverty (2014), (follow “Children Below 200 Percent Poverty” hyperlink).

[7] Economic Policy Institute,

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