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(Special to The Root) — Continuing their historical practice of working together to address issues of concern to the African-American community, the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are working cooperatively to improve educational opportunities for all students. This week we will run op-eds by the leaders of each organization that address a crucial aspect of what it will take to prepare our young people to succeed in life. Today: The president of the National Urban League addresses our willingness to invest in education. See previous essays in the series here. 

This year we commemorate two pivotal moments in African-American history: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington. As we reflect on where our journey has brought us, we must also acknowledge the high-stakes work left to do.

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The more overt aspects of racism are largely behind us, but there remains a more insidious inequality that stifles the social and economic progress we have made and threatens our ability to build on those gains: the need for adequate and equitable funding for education.

It is a tragedy that in many states and counties, the investment we make to educate our children too often is dictated by race and geography. If we are to honor the milestones we observe this year and continue the work of those who fought before us, we must stand firm for the idea that a high-quality education is everybody's right — not just those with the right ZIP code.

The disparities in educational investment throughout the country are stark and troubling. Recent reports offer sobering evidence of just how far we still need to go to realize the promise of full equality.

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The Education Law Center reported last year that while the U.S. spends more per student than other developed countries (pdf), the regions with the highest concentration of minority populations — the South and West — also see the lowest levels of education funds.

The same report showed that only 17 states employ progressive funding systems — that is, systems that provide more funding to high-poverty districts. And six states — Illinois, North Carolina, Alabama, Michigan, Texas and Colorado — have regressive systems in which high-poverty districts actually receive less funding than their wealthier neighbors.

That our educational system has been allowed to deteriorate to this deplorable state is a national disgrace. It's no wonder that African-American students continue to lag behind their peers in achievement, college readiness and college completion. As noted in our 2012 State of Black America report:

* According to the Department of Education, 1.3 million African-American students drop out of high school every year, and of those who do remain in school, only about 50 percent will graduate on time.

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* While 82 percent of schools that serve the fewest minorities offer algebra II, only 64 percent of the schools serving the most African Americans and Hispanics offer the same course.

* Although African Americans enter college at rates that are nearly equal to those of their white counterparts, only about 40 percent of them will graduate with a degree.

We can all agree that education is the surest on-ramp to economic empowerment and upward mobility, so when we shortchange our youths on education, we come up short as a community.

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The reasons for the disparity in educational investment are as varied as the tax schemes and arcane state and local funding formulas used to justify them, but the evidence cries out for an intelligent solution to ensure that all students — and minority students in particular — are able to meet college and career-ready standards and compete in a 21st-century economy. This means comprehensive, progressive funding reform that directs more resources to those areas where the need is greatest: high-poverty and minority communities. And it must include input from all stakeholders: parents and citizens, community leaders and elected officials at the local, state and federal levels.

The Urban League embraces its historic role in helping to prepare our youths for success in and out of the classroom. In fact, as part of our recently announced Jobs Rebuild America campaign, we are expanding a number of out-of-school time educational-enrichment programs for primary and secondary school children. But we can't do it alone.

At a time when resources to help the most vulnerable of our citizens are offered up on the altar of fiscal discipline, we in the civil rights community must demand adequate and equitable funding for our children's education.

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As the nation faces changing demographics and future workforce needs, we must not shirk our responsibility to say that intelligent investment in our children's education is in our national interest.

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.