By John B. King Jr.

The summer is underway and I feel very blessed to say that after a very positive school year with great teachers in Montgomery County Public Schools, my daughters have embarked on an enriching summer.

My older daughter, 14, began her summer with two weeks of comedy camp.  My younger daughter, 12, began her summer with two weeks on the Chesapeake Bay, sleeping in a tent, and trying out all sorts of new activities from tetherball to water skiing. By the time summer ends, they will have served as counselors in training at a Silver Spring theater camp, volunteered in a community service camp, and traveled and visited with family who entertain them with art museums, tours of historical sites, time at the beach, sports and other planned activities.

John B. King, president and CEO of The Education Trust. (Courtesy Photo)

But the reality is that not all young people have access to engaging enrichment and learning experiences over the summer. The experiences my girls will have this summer are largely a function of privilege.  All too often, a child’s socioeconomic status and/or race determines his or her opportunities when school is not in session. And a lack of summer opportunity can result in decreased outcomes for youth not just in the subsequent school year, but in the years that follow—widening academic achievement gaps that diminish the chances that low-income students and students of color graduate from high school and complete college.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, while higher-income students make slight academic gains during the summer, low-income children typically lose what equates to months of learning in both reading and math. These losses add up. Some researchers argue that as much as 70 percent of the achievement gap between affluent students and their less advantaged peers can be attributed to summer learning losses. But research also shows that attending a quality summer learning program can result in substantial academic gains for low-income youth in particular.

Rising income inequality in Maryland and across the country is creating what some journalists and scholars are calling a “shadow education system” that further disadvantages the most vulnerable children over the summer.

And, losses for the most vulnerable children aren’t only academic. About 84 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals do not access these services in the summer, so children’s food insecurity can increase and their nutrition and health can decline.

We see the shadow education system at work when wealthier children are about twice as likely to experience a historical site or museum, see a theater performance, or view an art gallery as children who are less advantaged.

Disparities in access to these types of experiences are troubling when research shows that exposure provides real benefits to children, including the development of critical thinking skills, higher math and reading test scores, and increased tolerance.

I’m heartened by proposed federal legislation recently introduced by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott, which would guarantee child care assistance during the summer and after school for low- and middle-income families with children under the age of thirteen. The Child Care for Working Families Act also would ensure that no family has to pay more than they can afford for this critical care.

I’m also heartened by summer learning programs that are fundamentally changing life trajectories for young people. The Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP) is one of these programs. BAP is a youth-led initiative that provides tutoring to middle and high school students in mathematics during the academic year and over the summer, but also focuses on community activism as central to its mission. As students make progress in the program, they can also work as paid BAP tutors.

BAP is also an active member of Baltimore’s YouthWorks program, which connects teenagers to summer employment. This year, more than 16,000 young people applied for jobs through YouthWorks, a 40 percent increase over just the last two years. This is important because summer jobs have powerful effects.

They open networks of opportunity to students who can find pathways to meaningful careers, see the benefits of positive role models, and gain access to expanded social and professional communities. In fact, some studies show that summer jobs literally save lives—for participating urban youth, their rates of death and incarceration over the summer markedly decreased.

Advocating for increased summer opportunity is everyone’s responsibility. In Maryland and throughout America, we have to work together to make summer opportunity available to all young people with a dream for their future.

John B. King served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama. He is currently the president and CEO of The Education Trust, nonprofit organization that promotes closing opportunity gaps.