WASHINGTON – President Obama defended his education initiative in a speech to the National Urban League conference July 29, days after the League and other civil rights groups sent him a 17-page letter criticizing the program, known as Race to the Top.

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

Key among the civil rights community’s gripe with the program, in which schools compete for government grants based on plans for student achievement, is that it allegedly would not help minority students because their schools would be at a disadvantage. But that claim is “absolutely false,” the president said, adding that criticism of the plan “reflects resistance to change.”

“ I wasn’t elected just to do what was popular; I was elected to do what’s right,” Obama said.

“What’s not right for Black, Latino and Native-American students is the “status quo,” he said. Black students, for example, “badly trail” White students in the U.S. and students abroad. “This status quo is morally inexcusable and economically indefensible,” Obama said. “Too many of our children see college as nothing but a distant dream because their education dreams went off the rails long before they reached 18.”

In addition to holding teachers more accountable, Race to the Top establishes clearer standards and more specific expectations for teachers and students, Obama asserted, compared to the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program, which, he said, gave states “the wrong standards” with its emphasis on restrictive testing.

“There’s nothing wrong with testing,” the president said, but tests should not “dictate what’s taught, but measure what’s been learned.”

The president also said he supports charter schools as one of many solutions. “If a charter school works, then let’s apply those lessons elsewhere,” he said.

The administration has long faced criticism for trying to deal with education reform amid an economic crisis. However, pointing to statistics showing America trailing behind other countries in college completion and the quality of education Obama said, “Education is an economic issue – if not THE economic issue of our time.” He added, “Countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

The president also used his speech to address the precipitous firing of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod based on a misleading video clip that falsely depicted her as racist. “She deserves better than what happened last week,” the president said. “Many are to be blamed for the reaction and overreaction that followed these comments, including my administration.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO