President Barack Obama launched a new initiative Thursday aimed at improving the educational outcomes for African Americans, who despite steady progress in recent years on indicators such as high school graduation and college-going, still trail significantly behind their white and Asian peers.
The president signed an executive order to establish the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, a move he first announced Wednesday night in New Orleans during a speech at the annual conference of the National Urban League, a leading civil rights organization.
In a broad stump speech that touched on a number of populist issues, including education, the president said he was creating the initiative for African Americans “so that every child has greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they’re born all through the time they get a career.”
Specific goals of the initiative span from early childhood to adulthood and include:
• Increasing access to, and participation in, early childhood programs that prepare African American children for success in school;
• Driving down the number of unnecessary referrals of black children to special education programs;
• Addressing disproportionate use of suspension and expulsion in schools; and
• Providing African American students with access to rigorous courses and effective teachers that are essential to preparing them for college and careers.
High-profile civil rights leaders praised the move.
“For too long, the experience of far too many African American students in far too many places has been marred by school districts whose ongoing practices have failed our children,” Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a statement. “If fully implemented, we are convinced the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans will make sure school discipline is fair, special education assignments are based on needs not race, and all of our nation’s most motivated students have fair access to advanced placement classes.”
The new education initiative for African Americans joins similar White House efforts aimed at Hispanics, American Indian and Alaska Natives, and Asian-American and Pacific Islanders. President Obama, in 2010, set up a similar effort to bring attention to, and strengthen, the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
Like the other efforts focused on improving educational outcomes for ethnic and racial groups, the African American initiative will be housed in the U.S. Department of Education. A spokesman for the department said that no one has been selected as of yet to head up the initiative. However, the president announced that he would appoint Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to advise him on the initiative.
In his Wednesday address to the Urban League, President Obama also spoke out against the pervasiveness of gun violence, as it played out so tragically last week in the mass shooting in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater that killed 12 people, and as it happens daily in communities across the nation.
“Every day, in fact, every day and a half, the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater,” he said. “For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans.”