For the first time in more than a generation, education is near the top of the American agenda; President Obama has called it “the economic issue of our time,” and has called for America to regain world leadership in the share of citizens with college degrees.

We at United Negro College Fund (UNCF) couldn’t be happier. We have been beating the drum for the importance of college education for all Americans since we were founded 66 years ago. We have also been beating the drum for the importance of making sure that kids get a good pre-college education, because without that, the odds against their being able to go to college and graduate become very long indeed.

The American record in getting kids, especially kids of color, the preschool-through-high school education they need to go to college and graduate is a dismal one. “Our 8th graders trail 10 other nations in science and math,” as the president said in a recent speech to the Urban League, and “African-American students trail not only almost every other developed nation abroad, but they badly trail their white classmates here at home.”

Watch this charter school report from theGrio’s Todd Johnson:
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The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” education reform program represents the biggest and best-funded response to this dismal record in at least 40 years. And that’s why I’m concerned that some longtime minority-education supporters whose commitment is beyond reproach, including the Urban League and the NAACP, instead of getting behind what the administration is trying to do, are trying to rein it in.

I’m particularly concerned about their resistance, expressed in a manifesto they called the “Framework,” to the emphasis the administration is placing on charter schools, and especially their unease “about the over-representation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities” Charter schools are schools of choice; minority enrollment in charter schools represents not an insidious top-down decision, but minority parents voting with their feet against public schools that have let them down time and time again.

More broadly, moreover, I see charter schools as having great potential for leading the way in reforming pre-college education. I see that potential as being so great that I serve on the boards of directors of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and of the KIPP network of public charter schools.

A recent study of KIPP charter schools, in fact, reinforces my conviction. The study, performed by the respected research firm Mathematica, focused on 22 middle schools in the KIPP network. The researchers compared the progress achieved by KIPP middle school students, most of them low-income students of color, on reading and math tests with reading and math test-score gains of school-system middle-schoolers.

The results were dramatic. After three years in KIPP schools, students in half the schools in the study gained the equivalent of more than a full year of instruction, “impacts large enough,” Mathematica reported, “to cut [the black-white achievement] gap in half within three years.” KIPP students’ reading scores increased as well, with gains of almost a year in 11 of the 22 KIPP schools surveyed in the study, closing the black-white reading-achievement gap by a third in three years.

KIPP achieved their success with exactly the same kinds of kids all too many system-schools are now failing. The Mathematica study, for example, documented clearly that KIPP is attracting students who start out scoring below district averages and wind up ahead, and students who are more likely to be kids of color from low-income families. The evidence is clear: These schools didn’t achieve results by cherry-picking kids with better grades or more advantages, but with hard work, more time spent in learning, excellent teachers and giving priority to the interests of children — ingredients everyone knows and almost everyone agrees on.

I agree with the organizations that issued the “Framework” that charter schools, as well as school-system schools, should be held rigorously accountable; in fact the KIPP study is part of its commitment to holding itself accountable. KIPP has cut loose schools that don’t show the education results to which the network is committed.

But the Mathematica study shows not only that charter schools can work for low-income students of color, but how they work, what their recipe for success is. Instead of reining charter schools in, as the Framework seems to suggest, we should be urging public school systems to look closely at successful charters, adapt their examples, and take them to scale.

The UNCF has committed to doubling the number of graduates from its member colleges and universities, and increasing the number of college scholarships it awards each year. But to reach these goals, and to fulfill the president’s commitment, our students have to get an education that prepares them to attend and graduate from college. That education reform doesn’t have to take a generation. The KIPP study shows that it is within our grasp today.