Activist calls quality schools a basic right
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Robert Moses wants to continue the fight for civil rights, but instead of equality in the voting booth, he wants it in classrooms.

A quality public education is so important it should be a constitutional right, said the founder of The Algebra Project, a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen math and science literacy in low-income middle and high schools.

For Moses, the focus on education is a natural progression from his work in Mississippi to get black sharecroppers accepted at the ballot box in the 1960s. The sharecroppers' right to vote was often questioned because of their illiteracy, Moses told an audience gathered at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus. His keynote address was part of the university's week-long Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

Moses' nuanced speech detailed various points in history -- from slavery in the British colonies to continuing segregation in Chicago schools until 1983 -- and how laws and the U.S. Constitution have changed in the past. Now, the Constitution should change again to guarantee a quality education for all, Moses said.

"The question, I think: Is the country mature enough to have that conversation?" he said.

Such a constitutional mandate would cause a radical shift in attitudes toward education, said Frank Margonis, a professor in the U.'s Department of Education, Culture and Society.

There's a "profound inequality" in schools across the country, Margonis said in an interview, and a constitutional right to a good education would allow parents to demand, even sue, for better resources in their children's schools.

A good education, particularly one that results in math literacy, is crucial to the "pursuit of happiness," said Hugo Rossi, the university's Center for Science and Mathematics Education director. In today's technology-driven society, students need more than good reading and writing skills, Rossi said.

Rossi said about a third of science and math classes at the U. are remedial because students have not learned the basics. Across Utah, one in five high school students entering the state's public colleges and universities in 2007 needed remedial courses in all subjects, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

Though The Algebra Project is used in only 12 states so far, Rossi would like to see it implemented in Utah's junior high and high schools.

"It's very critical for us, for our students, to come to the university as well prepared as possible," he said.

Students in low-income schools are often criticized as being apathetic, along with their parents and communities, Moses said. The Algebra Project works to increase students' ownership in their education, often through after-school programs.

"What we've done is ask the students to ante up," he said, noting that students agree to take math classes all four years of high school.

These students, usually in the bottom quarter of their class, Moses said, often progress even though previously "math has been a mystery if not a disaster."

mariav@sltrib.com