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It's wrong to dismiss path to equal education

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is CEO and cochairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and former executive director and CEO of the NAACP

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

is CEO and cochairman

of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and former executive director and CEO of the NAACP

Kevin P. Chavous

is the board chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Democrats for Education Reform, and a former Washington, D.C., councilman

At the core of the fight for civil rights since the 1950s have been the issues of equal justice and equal access to the best quality education for all children in the United States without discrimination or limitation because of race, poverty, or any other social factor.

While progress has been made since the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the truth is that in many states, from the West Coast to the East Coast, in the South and in the North, the problem of educational inequality persists. Millions of African American and other children are caught in a devastating contradiction between the mispriorities of too many status quo school systems and political leaders who routinely triage the interests of black children and their parents.

In America every child deserves the same chance to get the best education.

As the foundation of our society and the mechanism through which we shape and train our children to compete, enter the world, and achieve the American Dream, education is the key to that chance. Inequality in education means that children are denied their chance at what is supposed to make this country great.

It is with this vision and belief in mind that State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.) cosponsored Senate Bill 1, a plan that would provide private-school vouchers to low-income students in the state's failing schools.

This proposed remedy is not the only answer to the problem, but it is one of the options that African American parents and their children should rightfully have. These students have done nothing wrong; they were simply born into a situation without access to a quality education.

Williams rightly calls the injustice facing these students - and, sadly, millions of others across the country - a "new civil rights campaign of the century." Yet Williams has been criticized by some of our brothers and sisters in the NAACP in Pennsylvania. Some of them went so far as to say that Williams' calling educational inequality a civil rights issue was a "sacrilege."

The NAACP, which has worked tirelessly and proudly on behalf of equality throughout America, should rethink its unfounded criticisms of Williams. In many ways, sometimes some in the organization fall victim to the same line of flawed logic that it has historically and valiantly fought against: systemic inequalities.

Just because we have done things a certain way for a long time does not mean that we should be resistant to change - especially when the education status quo isn't working today for most African Americans and other minority children. This is the very point that President Obama made at last year's National Urban League Convention in Washington. Vouchers, while not a silver bullet that will fix our failing schools, are simply a way to help level the playing field. They will give a chance to thousands of kids who would otherwise be denied their civil right to equality of opportunity in education.

It's easy for opponents of vouchers to call them a "false hope." Those people have the means to choose what's best for their families, the resources to provide what they believe will best help them thrive.

But there's nothing false about an opportunity. There's nothing false about giving children in Pennsylvania's low-income families - a disproportionate number of whom are the very African American children the NAACP fights for - a better education and a chance at a better future.

Williams has advocated tirelessly for reform in our education system for more than two decades. He knows injustice, and he knows that a lack of access to a quality education is a threat to the most intrinsic of civil rights: opportunity. With Senate Bill 1, he is working to address both.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," "[I]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The civil rights movement will forever stand as one of the superlative achievements of heroism and courage of our time, but the movement was the beginning of a long journey toward equality in America, a journey that is still being fought by a new generation of reformers and trailblazers.

Today's fight for expanded educational opportunities is rooted in the same ideal that we must always strive for justice for all.