Bob Herbert has an important piece in today’s New York Times. It addresses, in as much depth as 825 words’ worth of column space will allow, a fact that recent polit-prop has generally reduced to cat fights and sound bites: “how difficult it is,” in South Carolina as anywhere, “for people of good will to dispose of the toxic layers of bigotry that have accumulated over several long centuries.”

For proof of that difficulty—though, of course, none is required—Herbert looks to the school system in South Carolina, where decrepit buildings, sewage problems, vermin infestation, and outdated textbooks are only some of the situations students face each school day. The “deplorable” physical condition of some South Carolina schools makes an apt metaphor for the similarly crumbling state of the work those schools are meant to serve. The country’s public education system, despite well-intentioned efforts to the contrary, is failing many of its students. And, as is documented again and again, it is failing minority students in particular.

From that angle, last night’s South Carolina debate was itself a failure. The event was co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, and supposedly intended to address the policy issues of highest concern to black voters. So how many questions did its moderators ask the presidential candidates about education? None.

That this isn’t completely surprising—we’ve written before about the absence of education as an issue in this election—makes it no less disappointing. Herbert’s analysis of South Carolina’s “toxic layers of bigotry” is an eloquent reminder of how important education is as an instrument of political, social, and moral change. An effective and equitable public school system is not only a preemptive solution to so many of the problems we might face in the future, but also a solvent that can—finally—start stripping away the country’s last stubborn layers of race-based bigotry. Voters need to start hearing more about it.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.