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Duncan Deflects Civil Rights Groups’ Criticism: You’re ‘Wrong’

By Michele McNeil — July 28, 2010 4 min read
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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the Obama administration’s education reform agenda before the National Urban League today, declaring that some of the arguments being made to justify a new framework that several civil rights groups released on Monday were flat out wrong.

The Urban League, which joined at least six other civil rights groups in calling for Duncan to reverse course on Race to the Top, charter schools, and turnaround models for low-performing schools, welcomed him with open arms. They interrupted his 30-minute speech several times with applause. Hugh B. Price, the former president of the Urban League, even called the Obama-Duncan education agenda the “most muscular federal education policy I’ve ever seen,” adding, “We’ve got your back.”

This is a fairly dramatic about-face from the run-up to Monday’s release of the highly critical framework, which was supposed to be unleashed with a public relations boom—complete with a press conference featuring prominent black leaders such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson calling for a new education direction. Instead, the whole thing fizzled, and left this blogger puzzled as to how strongly the groups still support their own framework.

It all started when Monday’s press conference was canceled over the weekend because of a “conflict in schedules.” Yet that same Monday morning, the key players were able to convene at the Education Department for a meeting with Duncan and White House Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes. The framework was nonetheless quietly released. However, Sharpton and his National Action Network dropped off the list of signatories.

UPDATE (7/29, 10:35 a.m.): The Rev. Sharpton’s group confirms he is in fact a signatory and supporter of the framework.

UPDATE (7/29, 11:53 a.m.): The twists and turns of this soap opera continue. I just talked to the Rev. Sharpton. He told me 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. He added that these three groups didn’t have “concerns” about the President’s education agenda, but “questions,” which were addressed in a Monday meeting with administration officials. In fact, the Rev. Sharpton said, “I agree with [the president]...I’m prepared to fight for a lot of what he’s saying.”

After Monday’s meeting, the civil rights groups released a new statement declaring that the meeting “led to a deeper understanding and meaningful dialogue” and more confidence in the administration. On Tuesday, the NAACP, the Urban League, and the National Action Network sent out another statement, reaffirming their commitment to work with the administration on education reform, citing “broad areas of agreement.”

(I’m still waiting for an answer as to whether Sharpton and his network do or do not stand behind the new framework, since they aren’t listed on the actual document as supporting it.) UPDATE (7/29, 10:35 a.m.): As stated above, the Rev. Sharpton is a supporter.UPDATE (7/29, 11:53 a.m.): Now he’s officially not a supporter.

Now back to Duncan’s speech.

In answer to the group’s call that he forgo competitions like Race to the Top and concentrate on increasing spending on all students, Duncan said: “Some people say that grant programs like Race to the Top are bad for low-income and minority students. ... But the fact is, Race to the Top has done more to dismantle the barriers to education reform ... than any federal law in history.”

He said those who think the Education Department isn’t investing heavily in formula programs, too, are either “intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed.”

And to answer their charge that he back off from his enthusiasm for charter schools, Duncan said: “Should we stifle the growth of high-quality public charter schools? ... Absolutely not. Tens of thousands of minority parents are on waiting lists for these schools. ... To suggest that charters are bad for low-income and minority students is absolutely wrong.”

He also announced the formation of a new commission that will examine fiscal equity among schools.

Many folks who represented groups that signed onto the critical framework spoke after Duncan, but did not raise much, if any, of the criticism they unleashed in their written document.

John A. Payton, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, didn’t address those issues in his remarks following Duncan. And Price, as explained above, praised Obama and Duncan (granted, Price is the former president of the Urban League). He even talked about some “terrific charter schools.”

Sharpton, when given an opportunity to talk about what he’d like Obama to say in a speech the president is scheduled to give tomorrow before the Urban League, focused on raising expectations—and also didn’t raise any of the central criticisms in the civil rights framework.