Citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Affordable Care Act was tantamount to a tax and therefore constitutional, legendary civil rights activist Robert Moses told a gathering of students and citizens Thursday evening that the U.S. should institute a national education tax.

Such a tax, he said, would help equalize public education for all, regardless of family income or social status.

In defense of his appeal, he quoted President John Adams, who said in 1785, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it."

Moses said the charter school debate is a "smoke screen" obscuring the larger issue of making quality public education a fundamental and universal right.

"Do we value the quality of education enough to lift it up to a constitutional issue?" he asked.

Moses made his remarks as a participant of a panel featuring educators and civic leaders, including Millicent Brown, professor of history at Claflin University who was one of 11 students to desegregate the Charleston County schools; Dave Dennis, former Freedom Rider and civil rights activist, and a colleague of Moses; and Mayor Joe Riley.

The event was organized by Jon Hale, professor of education history at the College of Charleston, and moderated by Courtney Howard, director of the college's Center for Partnerships to Improve Education. It was the second of two public discussions; the first concerned the Briggs v. Elliott case.

Moses, who in the first part of the 1960s led the drive in Mississippi to get sharecroppers and other disenfranchised blacks registered to vote, and who founded The Algebra Project in the early 1980s, also discussed the preamble to the United States Constitution.

"I want to lobby you to consider yourself a member of the class of 'We the People,'" he said, before a call-and-response recitation of the preamble.

He said it's important to distinguish between what the text says and what it does. Its accomplishment was to have created a constitutional class of people, initially white male property owners. Over the years that definition expanded, he said.

But too many Americans have forgotten what the preamble says: "We have to take responsibility for what happens to us. In order for this country to move, the force that has to be up and running is the 'We the People' force," he said.

The need for a healthy national conversation about the need for quality education is greater than ever, and in some ways harder than ever, he said.

"Are we mature enough to even talk about it? We don't know how to talk about it."

Moses said the uncomfortable truth is that our unstated national education policy is to allow for failing schools and to develop programs that rescue some students from those schools. This reactive approach "lets the country off the hook," he said. "And parents don't scream because they think they have some sort of option" - charter schools, Upward Bound, Affirmative Action or other initiatives.

Dennis said he is not against charter schools but worries that they are too often used as a stepping stone toward privatization.

Brown said she bristles when people blame bad parenting or unruly children instead of addressing systemic problems such as poverty, for it requires both "national responsibility and personal accountability." She said there remains in the community a certain disdain for low-income blacks that needs to be confronted.

Riley said more resources are needed, as well as tactical changes such as early childhood education, an extended school day and excellent after-school opportunities for all area children. Also important are related issues like health and nutrition and improved teacher pay, he said.

Moses ended the discussion with his constitutional reference and words of encouragement. The significance of "We the People" is profound, and if the concept goes unrealized, we risk losing our democracy, he said.

"It's hard. It's hard work."

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