Parents and the federal government each have an important role to play in boosting student achievement, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois told the nation’s oldest civil rights organization on Monday.
In a speech at the annual convention here of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president said that, if elected, he would increase funding for the No Child Left Behind Act, invest in training teachers, and expand prekindergarten programs.
But those policy prescriptions won’t succeed unless parents are committed to becoming involved in their children’s education, Sen. Obama said. He said parental participation is key to realizing the goals of the civil rights movement.
“I know that Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown versus Board of Education so that some of us could stop doing our jobs as parents,” Sen. Obama said. “That wasn’t the deal. And I know that nine little children did not walk through a schoolhouse door in Little Rock so that we could stand by and let our children drop out of school and turn to gangs for the support they are not getting elsewhere.”
He urged parents to turn off their children’s television sets and video games, help with their schoolwork, and attend parent-teacher conferences.
Sen. Obama’s recent emphasis on personal responsibility has met with some criticism from leaders in the civil rights community, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Chicago, who, in an off-color remark last week, suggested Sen. Obama was “talking down” to African-Americans. Rev. Jackson has since apologized.
Sen. Obama acknowledged such criticism in his speech, but said he would continue to emphasize personal responsibility.
“I know some say I’ve been too tough on folks about responsibility,” Sen. Obama said. “But I’m not going to stop talking about it.”
The speech met with enthusiastic cheers and a standing ovation from a crowd at the Duke Energy Center here, many of whom were wearing “Obama 08” t-shirts and Obama buttons.
McCain to Come
Sen. Obama’s presumed Republican rival in the fall, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is scheduled to address the NAACP meeting on Wednesday. He will discuss his education proposals, including how to ensure that low-income students in struggling schools have access to free tutoring, Lisa Graham Keegan, a McCain education adviser, said last week.
Sen. Obama said he was glad Sen. McCain is planning to highlight the issue, but called the Republican’s approach “the same tired old rhetoric about vouchers.”
Still, Sen. Obama said that improving the schools will require a bipartisan effort.
“Both Republicans and Democrats have to recognize that too many of our kids are falling behind,” Sen. Obama said. “We’ve got to reform NCLB, which left the money behind.”
He didn’t go any further into his position on the federal education law.
Esther L. Hampton, a middle school special education teacher in the Ann Arbor, Mich., school district and a participant at the NAACP meeting, applauded Sen. Obama’s emphasis on parental responsibility.
“I think that he was very much on target in terms of parents,” she said. While parents do participate in their children’s education in her school, she said, “we need more parents to do it and to do it more consistently.”
Shirley Fanuiel, a member of the La Marque, Texas, school board, also embraced Sen. Obama’s message. “Parents are the first teachers,” she said.
And she lauded the Democrat’s rhetoric on the No Child Left Behind Act, saying she hasn’t yet heard Sen. McCain draw a sharp contrast on the law between himself and President Bush, who claims it as one of the most important domestic-policy achievements of his presidency.
“Education is a civil rights issue, yet it’s key to remember that under President Bush [the government] has left all of the children behind,” Ms. Fanuiel said.