Obama refuses to budge on Race to the Top education reforms

Many critics of President Obama's Race to the Top education reforms come from core constituencies of his own party. Mr. Obama took a stand for Race to the Top in a speech Thursday.

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    President Obama highlights his Race to the Top education reforms in a speech to the National Urban League conference in Washington Thursday.
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President Obama made it clear Thursday morning that he has no intention of backing down from his education reform agenda, despite criticism from core constituencies in his own party.

Speaking before a crowd of civil rights advocates in Washington, he went to bat for his signature education initiative so far, the Race to the Top competition among states for $4.3 billion in grants tied to a range of education reforms.

“I’ll continue to fight for Race to the Top with everything I’ve got,” he said at the convention marking the centennial of the National Urban League, a New York based civil rights group devoted to economic empowerment of minorities.

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Noting that concerns have been raised about whether competition for some education funds in the midst of a recession is the right approach to help minority students, Mr. Obama said, “What’s not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and native American kids across this country is the status quo.”

Race to the Top, Obama added, is “the single most ambitious, meaningful education reform effort we’ve attempted in this country in generations.”

Race to the Top has been controversial for a number of reasons, including the incentives it gives for more charter schools; for tying teacher evaluations in part to student test scores; and for drastic changes at chronically failing schools, which at times has meant the wholesale removal of the staff.
Earlier this week, a coalition of civil rights groups released a recommended framework for federal education law that challenges some of the administration’s approach.

The administration is “certainly in a defensive posture,” says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy. “They have problems with the Congress, they have problems with civil rights groups, they have problems with regular education groups.”

Obama had been pushing for $10 billion to save education jobs as part of a broader emergency spending bill, but when one proposal would have paid for it by trimming money for Race to the Top and other reform-based grants, he threatened a veto, and the jobs money was removed. Now it’s unlikely the administration will find another vehicle in Congress to get that jobs funding passed, Mr. Jennings says. It also appears that any rewriting of the nation’s education law, currently known as No Child Left Behind, will also have to wait for the next Congress.

Obama told the crowd today that “charter schools aren’t a magic bullet, but I want to give states and school districts a chance to try new things” – and then replicate what works.

He cited the Mastery charter schools in Philadelphia, where the level of proficiency in reading and math more than doubled in two years and violence dropped by 80 percent. “If [those schools] can do it, every troubled school can do it, but that means we’re going to have to shake some things up.”

Race to the Top has also encouraged dozens of states to adopt voluntary national standards designed to ensure that high school graduates are ready for college and a career. That’s important, Obama said, because some states had watered down standards to avoid having too many schools fall under the sanctions of No Child Left Behind. “I do not want to see young people get a diploma but they can’t read that diploma,” he said to applause.

Obama called for parents to take more responsibility, too. Improving education, he said, will take better schools and more parental engagement, a collective commitment and a personal commitment. And students themselves, despite the serious barriers they face, have to do their part, he noted.

“Our kids need to understand nobody’s going to hand them a future. And education’s not just something [where] you tip your head and they pour it in your ear.” he said, leaning his head to one side to demonstrate. “You’ve got to want it.”

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