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Martin Luther King Jr. believed passionately that all human beings deserve the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. While we’ve come a long way as a nation to right the injustices that King and other leaders worked so hard to overcome, our education system still perpetuates inequity. Educational inequality is our generation’s civil-rights issue. We live in a country where a child’s chance at a quality education and resulting life opportunities are determined by where a child is born, what color that child is and how much money that child’s parents earn for a living. This is not just. This is not right.

Today, more than 50 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, just half of students who grow up in low-income communities graduate from high school. Those who do graduate perform, on average, at an eighth-grade level. Only one in 10 kids living in poverty will earn a college diploma.

For most of us, these are shocking statistics. But for more than 15 million American kids growing up in poverty, this is reality. Black and Latino children are disproportionately affected because they are three times more likely to live in poverty than white children. By the fourth grade, these children are three grade levels behind their higher-income peers. Access to a quality education is a fundamental right of every U.S. citizen. How are these kids going to succeed in life and become our country’s future leaders if they can’t even get a quality education?

While I am best known for my work as a musician, I am also deeply invested in working to end educational injustice in our country. My Show Me Campaign fights each day for equal access to quality education. I wrote a song called “Shine” for the recent documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ in order to amplify the students’ voices and help tell their story.

Through my efforts to help Teach For America recruit top college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools and become lifelong leaders in the fight to ensure educational opportunity for all, I have seen students in low-income communities excel academically when they are given the opportunities they deserve. In East Feliciana Parish, La., 74 percent of residents are black or Latino, and 84 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Statistically, these students should be falling behind. Yet, at Jackson Middle School, under the leadership of TFA alumna Allison El Koubi, their School Performance Score jumped 18.5 points in one year. It was the biggest increase of any middle school in the state.

TFA corps members and alumni have had an enormous impact on narrowing the achievement gap nationwide. Last year, Meg Stewart — an Oakland, Calif., TFA corps member — helped her special-education students demonstrate nearly two years of reading growth on the Developmental Reading Assessment and achieve a mastery level of 94 percent on prioritized standards.

Every day, 8,200 TFA corps members just like Stewart enter classrooms in low-income communities across the country, committed to helping their students maximize their potential. Research shows that an effective teacher is the single most important factor in boosting student achievement — more important than the class size, the number of dollars spent per student or the quality of textbooks and materials.

Our society has eradicated many of the injustices King challenged with such conviction and courage. But if he were here today, he would say that our work is not done. A good education is inextricably linked to our rights as American citizens. And a quality education should be a fundamental right.

Education is today’s civil-rights issue — and we have the power to do something about it. Educational inequality is a solvable problem. We’re seeing success around the country in great schools with great teachers.

Join the modern-day civil rights movement and help ensure that all children have equal access to a great education. In the words of King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

If you’re interested in becoming a 2011 Teach For America corps member, the last deadline to apply is Feb. 4, 2011, at You will never regret making an impact where it is most needed.

John Legend is a 1999 College alumnus and Grammy Award-winning musician. He is the founder of the Show Me Campaign and a board member of Teach For America.

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