For years, the poor have found the way out of poverty blocked by their lack of access to an excellent education. As individuals, and as a nation, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that education can be the ladder out of poverty.

American education has long been highly stratified. The wealthy send their children to exclusive private schools. Members of the middle class purchase more expensive houses in better neighborhoods to get their children into good public schools.

The poor are left with the educational dregs: Schools where learning is minimal, violence is the norm, and survival is the main objective.

A lucky few win scholarships for their children or save enough money to enroll their children in parochial schools. Most poor students, however, have no choice butto suffer in schools that simply do not work. And many activists of all races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds who spent years angrily — and justly — challenging the notion of a “separate but unequal” public K-12 education system have remained largely silent about this scandalous situation.

Yet early civil rights activists knew that education was the great equalizer and the key to advancement. This is precisely why one of the principal targets of desegregation was education.

Poor people around the world recognize the centrality of education to advancement. Ask a child walking barefoot for miles to get to a simple classroom in any developing nation what he or she wants, and the response will be an education. The impediments to progress in these nations are far greater than in America, but they know, like we do, that the essential first step in getting ahead is education.

Obviously, not all schools in impoverished neighborhoods fail. Many dedicated teachers do their best in trying circumstances. But they are fighting an entire system seemingly organized to prevent learning and punish achievement.

The problem is not money. Spending does not correlate with academic achievement. Indeed, many of the worst public schools spend the most. They face enormous social problems, of course, yet there are private schools in underserved communities that confront the same difficulties and do far more with less.

The problem is the system. The public school monopoly is organized for the benefit of political constituencies, not families. Administrators, politicians, and teachers unions all put themselves before students. Money is spent on bureaucracy rather than teachers. Jobs are protected irrespective of how badly teachers perform. Administrators and teachers alike dismiss parents’ concerns and resist parental involvement — other than to ratify whatever the system has decided.

Teachers unions even have attacked private scholarship programs for poor students. In no way do such initiatives take money away from public schools, a common, though misguided, attack on voucher programs. Criticizing private people helping students attend private schools is a desperate attempt to protect unionized public school jobs. The interests of children are put last.

The interests of other people’s children, that is. Public school teachers send their children to private schools at roughly twice the rate of Americans generally. Public school teachers in the most troubled urban systems are most likely to place their kids in private schools.

The phenomenon has been evident for years. Denis P. Doyle of the Hudson Institute observed more than a decade ago: “What is most interesting is private school enrollment in our largest cities, where public schools are arguably the worst. In the largest urban areas, public school teachers are more likely than the population at large to enroll their children in private schools.”

Doyle pointed out that this relationship was particularly strong for minorities. African-American teachers were 50 percent more likely than other African-American parents to put their children in private schools.

What of average Americans? Eleven percent of students attend private school.

“Activists” and “leaders” of all stripes must stop pretending that our nation’s children cannotachieve because of racism or some other social obstacle. African-Americans and Latinos have been making dramatic political, economic, and social progress. We have the first black president, as well as the first Latina Supreme Court justice. Minorities have been moving into the middle class in large numbers. Although racism is never likely to disappear, its effect has lessened dramatically over time.

The opportunities are there for our youth. But the poor, black, white, and Hispanic must be equipped to take advantage of the dramatically changing and expanding world in which we live.

That requires an education. That does not mean schools that act as de facto child care facilities and teachers who see themselves as glorified baby-sitters. It means educators determined to prepare students for our increasingly globalized and technologically sophisticated world. That will not happen if we accept the educational status quo. It will not happen if we complain about how “big brother” wants to hold us down. It will only happen if we demand that our children receive the education which they deserve. There is no more important civil rights cause today.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and chief executive officer of the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice. Also, Bernard is author of “Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before” and is an MSNBC political analyst and a Sunday columnist with The Examiner.