Published Online: July 29, 2010

Obama Defends Race to Top

President Barack Obama exits the stage after speaking on education reform at the National Urban League 100th Anniversary Convention in Washington on July 29.
—Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is forcefully defending his signature education initiative, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, which has come under fire from civil rights groups that worry the competitive nature of the program creates a system of winners and losers that could hinder schools serving poor and minority students.

In a speech Thursday to the National Urban League in Washington, the president offered a rebuttal to such criticism, saying the steps the program encourages states to take, including lifting caps on charter schools and using student data to inform teacher evaluation, are the right ones. He called the initiative “the single most important thing we’ve done” on education.

“I know there’s a concern that Race to the Top doesn’t do enough for minority kids, because the argument is, well, if there’s a competition, then somehow some states or some school districts will get more help than others,” Mr. Obama said. “Let me tell you, what’s not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo. That’s what’s not working.”

Mr. Obama specifically addressed concerns about the competitive nature of the program, saying that even students in states that aren’t tapped for a grant under Race to the Top will benefit from the policy changes state lawmakers enacted as they tried to gain a competitive advantage. For instance, 31 states so far have adopted a new set of common academic standards, developed as part of an initiative to set more rigorous expectations for all students. Some critics contend those guidelines would actually water down standards in some states.

And Mr. Obama made it clear that he doesn’t want to see wholesale changes to the Race to the Top program, which two congressional panels recently voted to extend for an additional year.

“I’ll continue to fight for Race to the Top with everything I’ve got, including using a veto to prevent folks from watering it down,” Mr. Obama said.

The president also explained his administration’s policies on teacher quality, which have called for states to link teacher effectiveness to student achievement, to improve classroom instruction, and to help inform teacher evaluations, tenure, and retention decisions.

“The whole premise of Race to the Top is that teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s education from the moment they step into the classroom,” Mr. Obama said.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, applauded the president for praising teachers. “The way he talked about his respect for the profession, … I think that the members of NEA are going to feel good about that.” But Van Roekel took issue with elements of the agenda mentioned in the speech, including the administration’s remedies for low-performing schools.

Concerns Over Agenda

A few days before the speech, a coalition of civil rights groups—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League—called on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to rework significant pieces of the administration’s K-12 agenda, including Race to the Top. They said the competitive program rewards states that can afford to invest in grant applications, potentially leaving out many under-resourced schools that serve poor and minority children. ("Civil Rights Groups Call for New Federal Education Agenda," July 26, 2010.)

The groups also took issue with the administration’s prescription for intervening in the lowest-performing schools, which offers states a menu of potential remedies, including closing down a school and sending the students elsewhere. Nearly all of the options require the removal of the school’s principal.

The coalition—which also includes the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Council on Educating Black Children, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education—issued its own education policy framework. The group originally had scheduled a July 26 press conference to roll out its ideas, but the event was abruptly canceled because leaders from many of the organizations were unavailable.

The same day the news conference was to have taken place, a representative from each of the groups (with the exception of Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP) met with Mr. Duncan and Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, to discuss their proposals.

On Thursday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said he was “very impressed with Obama’s speech” and commitment to education. Rev. Jackson said he continues to support the framework that was released earlier this week as “a point of discussion.” He said that observers who viewed the framework as a “protest” misunderstood its intentions.

“Everybody who worked on that [framework] is President Obama’s supporters. … It was designed to be a sharing moment, not a challenging moment,” he said. While he agrees with President Obama that states need more rigorous academic standards, for instance, Rev. Jackson feels that there needs to be equal emphasis on ensuring students have access to supports, such as dental services and public transportation.

Another sponsor of the framework, Barbara Arnwine, the executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that the speech was “excellent. … I think conceptually, in terms of what his objectives are, we’re not far apart.” And she gave Secretary Duncan high marks for listening to the groups’ ideas.

Still, she continues to support the framework, which she also said was mischaracterized. While there may have been criticism in the framework, she said, “It’s chock-full of recommendations. It’s the recommendations that count.”

Ms. Arnwine said the only part of the speech that troubled her was when President Obama suggested that Race to the Top’s detractors are supporters of the “status quo.”

“I think he got that a little bit wrong,” she said. “I don’t think that we are resistant to change. We are change agents.” She said the groups want to see changes that they believe will be effective for public schools, particularly for minority children.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, was listed as an early supporter of the framework on a press release to drum up media interest in the document’s unveiling. But Mr. Sharpton said Thursday that the critical framework was “prematurely released” and that his National Action Network, the NAACP, and the Urban League, are actually not supporters of the framework. The NAACP and the Urban League did not respond to request for comment as of late Thursday afternoon. Mr. Sharpton added that these three groups didn’t have “concerns” about the president’s education agenda, but “questions,” which were addressed in the Monday meeting with administration officials.

In fact, Rev. Sharpton said of Mr. Obama’s remarks today, “I thought it was a great speech. I agree with [the president] ... I’m prepared to fight for a lot of what he’s saying.” He added that his board would likely be issuing a strong statement in support of the president.

Support for Speech

Other civil rights organizations and education advocacy organizations applauded the speech as a thoughtful articulation of the rationale behind the administration’s K-12 agenda.

“The president came out swinging against the forces of the status quo,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice-president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an organization in Washington that advocates for poor and minority children. “It was clear, it was specific, and it was powerful. He put himself on the side of kids of color and low income. [The speech] was an unambiguous, full-throated defense of those kids.”

And Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City public school system, said he expected that the speech would carry major moral and policy implications.

“He was clearly saying he’s going to stand behind these ideas,” Mr. Klein said.

The speech comes just days after the Obama administration announced a list of 19 state education agencies that will compete as finalists in the second round of the Race to the Top competition. The program, which was established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year, includes $4 billion to reward states for making progress in certain areas, including state assessments and standards, teacher quality and distribution, improving the performance of low-performing schools, and establishing statewide data systems.

Forty-two states competed in the first round of the competition, but only two states were awarded grants: Delaware and Tennessee. Thirty-six states submitted applications for the second phase of the competition, in which $3.4 billion in grant money is left.

Race to the Top remains the Obama administration’s most prominent achievement on K-12 issues. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education introduced a blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

The blueprint called for requiring states to measure students’ progress towards college-and-career readiness. And while it proposed a specific set of remedies for the lowest-performing schools, it offered states significantly more flexibility than the NCLB law in determining how to ensure most schools meet student achievement goals.

But Congress has yet to act on the renewal of ESEA. Many of the policy prescriptions states are encouraged to adopt under Race the Top are included in the blueprint. In the speech, Mr. Obama focused primarily on the competitive program and not on the law’s renewal. ("Administration Unveils ESEA Renewal Blueprint," March 13, 2010.)

Vol. 29, Issue 37

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