Gamecocks ... Tar Heels ... Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium ... season opener ... 6 o’clock tonight ... ESPN.

Many South Carolinians’ school spirit peaks with fervent football focus on such spectacles.

Much closer to home, Charleston Southern also starts the new season at home tonight against North Greenville.

But our intense interest in schools, from colleges down to pre-K, shouldn’t be confined to how good, bad or so-so their teams are in football or any other sport.

As The Post and Courier’s “Left Behind” series on the consequences — and benefits — of school choice has been illuminating, the stakes of public education’s academic outcomes vastly exceed whether a star linebacker remains eligible.

Our community, state and nation can’t afford to keep leaving so many students — and schools — behind.

The familiar failure to close large, persistent gaps in classroom results along socioeconomic and racial lines isn’t just morally wrong.

It’s economically foolish.

The modern global labor market demands a well-educated workforce.

That demands reversing the protracted trend of dismal standardized test scores at too many — and just one would be too many — long-struggling public schools.

Yes, school choice gives concerned parents the rightful opportunity to transfer their children to better schools.

No, kids whose parents make that choice shouldn’t be held hostage in a lousy school over a “left behind” guilt trip.

So good for the parents who exercise school choice — and for the ongoing quest to expand educational options.

Still, what about those “left behind” students and schools?

What about the obstacles, including transportation limitations and family circumstances, blocking fuller utilization of school choice?

What about the fundamental flaw of any public school’s reputation sinking so low that a large and growing number of children leave it?

Fostering more parental involvement in their children’s education is a crucial task.

Yet that can’t justify writing off the kids whose parents fall far short of that ideal — or shrugging off the futilities of the schools those students attend.

Many of those children were already left behind in a very real sense — in vocabulary, math, behavior and other basic educational building blocks — by the time they showed up for their first day of school.

Lots of parents do the right things by reading to their kids from a very young age — and by teaching them their letters, numbers and how to act in a classroom.

However, some parents don’t. Unless you’re a mom or dad who neglects that early-education obligation in your home, that’s not your fault — at least not directly.

But it is your problem.

Sure, we conservatives correctly stress not just fiscal but personal responsibility.

Then again, while the “every man for himself” approach has motivational advantages, “every kid for himself or herself” sounds a mite mean — and stupid.

Collective responsibility also counts. Thus, if we keep rationalizing the sad status quo of chronically lagging schools as somehow inevitable, that will be our fault.

The sooner — as in the younger — we start teaching children from disadvantaged backgrounds the better.

The sooner we can end “social promotion,” which fuels anti-social conduct by bumping flunking students up to the next grade, the better, too.

That phony-baloney process doesn’t just cheat kids sent to the fourth grade when they can’t do third-grade work.

It punishes their classmates and teachers.

And parents aren’t the only people choosing to find better schools. Teachers, when they can, make school choices of their own.

You don’t need an education doctorate to know that most teachers understandably prefer to work in a safe environment with kids who are actually there to learn. Far too many fine teachers even ultimately choose to leave not just the public school system but the profession altogether.

After all, who needs such high levels of frustration for such relatively low pay?

Meanwhile, though, the kids and the schools being “left behind” need — and deserve — considerable help.

Around here, lots of those students are black.

South Carolina has made remarkable advances in racial fairness since my 1959-65 learning experiences at the then-all-white St. Andrews Elementary School.

As Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday during a speech to the National Press Club in Washington:

“Long before the racially charged events of this summer, I would not have been elected governor of South Carolina if our state was a racially intolerant place.”

When it comes to closing that daunting education achievement gap, though, talk is cheap.

Fixing what ails the schools that so many families are choosing to escape isn’t.

But not fixing it is quite costly, too.

So revel in the surge of school spirit that drives you to cheer for the Gamecocks, Buccaneers — or even the Tar Heels — tonight.

Just don’t forget to also root for an overdue triumph in the must-win mission of improving education at all public schools in our state.

And that will require overdue teamwork to improve the odds stacked against the kids — and the schools — “left behind.”

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is