School & District Management

Obama Stands Firm on Education Agenda Amid Qualms from Lawmakers, Advocates

By Alyson Klein & Michele McNeil — August 10, 2010 7 min read
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The Obama administration is standing by its signature education reform initiative, the Race to the Top program, and the policies wrapped up in that competition—even as the aggressive agenda continues to spark pushback, most recently from some civil rights groups.

Calling Race to the Top “the single most important thing we’ve done” on education, President Barack Obama used a July 29 speech to make a forceful rebuttal to criticism of his efforts, including from members of his own party in Congress.

“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 told a meeting of the National Urban League. “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.”

Days before the speech, several civil rights groups—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League—called on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to rework significant pieces of the administration’s K-12 agenda, including the 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.

President Barack Obama marshalled his arguments in a July 29 speech to the National Urban League in Washington.

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 the options require the removal of the school’s principal. And the groups objected to the administration’s emphasis on charter schools as a solution for urban education woes.

Since then, some of the civil rights groups have pledged support for the administration’s agenda and backed away from a framework that was released with little fanfare after a planned July 26 press conference was abruptly canceled. Instead, the groups met privately with Obama administration officials to talk about the framework, which is partly a critique of the Obama agenda and partly a set of recommendations.

Yet for some key members of Congress, questions about the administration’s agenda persist.

For instance, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sought to scale back core White House priorities to help cover the cost of pending legislation to prevent teacher layoffs.

And Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, released a framework for turning around struggling schools that was critical of the administration’s approach, as outlined in the regulations for $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants.

Some also have raised questions about whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the department’s favored turnaround models will be effective. (“Restructuring Under NCLB Found Lacking,” Dec. 16, 2009.)

Seizing Momentum

The president’s speech came just as the administration was announcing the 19 finalists in the second round of the Race to the Top competition, in which $3.4 billion in federal funds are up for grabs. All but four states took a shot at winning the grants in the two rounds.

In addition, the Education Department last week announced the districts, schools, and nonprofit organizations that are in the running to win a grant from the $650 million Investing in Innovation program, another federal competition designed to spark innovation at the local level. (“Big Players, Small Innovators Snare ‘i3' Cash,” this issue.)

The day before Mr. Obama addressed the Urban League, Mr. Duncan offered an equally forceful defense of his agenda in a speech to the same organization, which was an early supporter of the civil rights groups’ framework.

He said those who think the Education Department is only investing in competitive programs, and not also in formula programs, are either “intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed.”

And to answer the civil rights groups’ call that he back off from his enthusiasm for charter schools, Mr. 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.”

Although the performance of individual charter schools varies widely, evidence is mixed on how the achievement of charter schools as a group compares with that of traditional public schools.

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

In Mr. Obama’s speech, the president focused mostly on the Race to the Top, which embodies many of the principles the administration wants to carry forward as Congress works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

He 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 performance to student-achievement data and overhaul 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.

Favorable Responses

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a supporter of the newly released civil rights framework, said he was “very impressed with Obama’s speech” and commitment to education. Mr. Jackson said he continues to support the framework that was released by the civil rights groups as “a point of discussion.” Observers who viewed the framework as a “protest” misunderstood its intentions, he said, noting that those who worked on it are Obama supporters.

“It was designed to be a sharing moment, not a challenging moment,” Mr. Jackson said. For instance, while he agrees with President Obama that states need more rigorous academic standards, Mr. 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 Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the president’s speech was “excellent. … I think conceptually, in terms of what his objectives are, we’re not far apart.” She also gave Mr. Duncan high marks for listening to the groups’ ideas.

Still, she continues to support the framework, which she also said was mischaracterized. While it may have included criticism, she said, “it’s chockful of recommendations. It’s the recommendations that count.”

Ms. Arnwine said the only part of the president’s speech that troubled her was his suggestion that the Race to the Top’s detractors are supporters of the “status quo.” 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 on a press release as an early supporter of the framework. But Mr. Sharpton said after the president’s speech that the critical framework was “prematurely released” and that the group is actually not a supporter.

Mr. Sharpton added that his group didn’t have “concerns” about the president’s education agenda, but “questions,” which were addressed in the July 26 meeting with administration officials.

In fact, Mr. Sharpton said of Mr. Obama’s remarks, “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.”

Together with the NAACP and the Urban League, the National Action Network put out a statement saying they will “work cooperatively with the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on positive efforts to reform education.” Unlike the National Action Network, the NAACP and the Urban League are still listed as signatories on the framework.

Other civil rights groups and education advocacy organizations applauded the speech as a thoughtful articulation of 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.

A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Obama Stands Firm On Education Agenda Amid Qualms From Lawmakers, Advocates

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