03/31/2014 11:18 am ET Updated May 31, 2014

Rebuilding the Great Equalizer

America's first great education reformer, Horace Mann, once said that education was society's "great equalizer" -- offering all Americans the opportunity to get ahead, no matter who they are or where they come from. In Mann's view, education operates as the "balance wheel of the social machinery," ensuring that one class does not perpetually possess "all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor."

Unfortunately, America's balance wheel is malfunctioning. Instead of operating as the "great equalizer," our education system is making our society ever more separate and unequal. Far too often, kids in poorer neighborhoods are ending up trapped in bad schools, with no ability to escape to a better school and onto the ladder of opportunity.

This is unfair. And it is condemning far too many people to generations of poverty and hopelessness. This is especially true in my home state of California, where our education system lets kids -- especially poor and minority children -- slip behind and stumble unprepared into an economy plagued with persistently high unemployment and the nation's highest poverty rate.

Nine California public school children are working to change this. Backed by Students Matter, these brave kids have sued the State of California (in Vergara v. California), claiming that the state's broken education system violates their right to a quality education guaranteed by the California Constitution. Specifically, the Vergara Nine claim that California's laws result in an education system that drives the most effective teachers out of the system, while protecting grossly ineffective ones, who for the most part end up teaching in the disadvantaged and minority communities where we'd want our best teachers. Because teacher quality is indisputably the most important factor in student success, this means that kids in disadvantaged communities are often stuck in schools that don't give them the leg up that they desperately need.

The Vergara case is nearing a decision, and the testimony from the trial has been riveting. Day after day, we have heard stories from teachers, parents, kids, administrators and nationally-known experts that paint a picture of the current California education system that is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Some stories are inspiring, showing the awesome impact a great teacher can have on a kid's life. Elizabeth Vergara, one of the plaintiffs, recounted how her sixth grade English teacher inspired her to read every day, telling her that reading would build her imagination. My daughter Nadia also loves to read, and she's also had great teachers who have fostered this love. I hope one day Nadia gets to meet Elizabeth.

But tragically, not every kid is this lucky. For every wonderful story recounted during the trial about an inspiring teacher, we also have heard stories of teachers belittling kids, sleeping in class and throwing things at their students. Another plaintiff, Beatriz Vergara, recounted how her seventh grade history teacher would let students smoke marijuana in the back of class, and would "call us stupid and tell us that we're going to clean houses for a living, and um, that Latinos are going to end up being 'cholos.'"

California's laws leave too many kids to the mercy of teachers like that, with no way out. In the words of Kareem Weaver, a former principal and the Executive Director of the Bay Area Chapter of New Leaders, the impact on kids of having grossly ineffective teachers year in and year out is immeasurable. It is a "trajectory changing event" for a kid. According to Weaver, education is an "opportunity to overcome certain things," and "for many students especially kids of color," and "kids with low socioeconomic status, education can either prop them up or can blow them down."

California is letting its education system blow too many of its kids down. This is a betrayal of everything we stand for as a nation, as we let too many kids who want to make something of their lives fall by the wayside. As one of the plaintiffs, Brandon DeBose, says: "I want to go to college," and he knows that "a good teacher basically progresses you to your goals." But Brandon keeps struggling through the Oakland public schools, and he keeps getting bad teachers who stand in his way but are protected by the system. As Brandon says, getting another bad teacher is "something I can't afford."

All of us need to stand with Brandon and the rest of the Vergara Nine, as they wind their way through the courts. We hope they win their case. But those of us in the political system also need to take up their cause, and use the amazing record of testimony and data that has been aired during the trial to fight within the political system to reform our schools, giving families all the tools they need to make sure every kid in California goes to a great school with great teachers. Nothing should stand in the way of that. Period.

The ideas that motivate education reformers and the Vergara Nine are not new, and they aren't radical. They are common sense, and have been embraced by leaders across the political spectrum, Republicans and Democrats alike. What is radical is how much we have allowed entrenched interests fighting reform to rule our education system, make it worse and undermine our kids' futures. All of us need to stand against this and for our children.