Blacks split with Obama over education reforms

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(NNPA)—At the recent National Urban League convention, President Obama’s speech took aim at criticisms that had been launched by the Black civil rights community over the educational reforms proposed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The 17-page document, “Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” was put together by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the NAACP, the National Urban League, RainbowPush Coalition, National Council for Educating Black Children and the Schott Foundation for Public Education. My understanding is that the National Action Network was part of the group but ultimately not a signatory to the document. These organizations discovered last year that Duncan was putting together a draft proposal known as “Race To The Top” with little input from the African-American community and this document stands as an important critique of that proposal from our point of view.

RonWaltersBox

I knew that something was terribly wrong about the Duncan proposals when Diane Ravitch, an architect of “No Child Left Behind” in the Bush administration wrote a piece in The Nation explaining why she no longer supports NCLB. In that piece, she says, “I expected that Obama would throw out NCLB and start over. But, on the contrary, his administration has embraced some of the worst features of the George W. Bush era.”

Specifically, she was talking about how her view of both “choice” and “accountability” had changed and her conclusion that neither would improve American education. A radical point of view!

So, President Obama at the NUL pointed to the unprecedented amount of funds for education in the Recovery Act that saved the jobs of many teachers and the recent roll-out of the grant program that provided funds for “Race To The Top” to the first 18 states. He defended the criticism that it was not supportive of minority students by saying that the state proposals had to have a robust minority program.

But he spent a great deal of time suggesting that while he supported teachers, that they were, in effect, the lynchpin of accountability for his new reforms. Again, this view, very little different from the Bush administration, also goes after teachers unions as a barrier to the concept of accountability.

Moreover, since the Duncan plan has been criticized by the civil rights groups as too charter school top heavy, the president defended it by saying that the bad ones would be closed down. But this didn’t challenge the concept, since a recent authoritative study by Margaret Raymond at Stanford University, for the pro-Charter Walton Family Foundation, found that only 17 percent of charters out-performed matched public schools, the other 83 percent were either no better or no worse.

These findings are similar to Washington, D.C., which has the largest number of charters in the country.

The support for charters and public funding of private schools is the modern version of the segregated academies of the period before Brown v. Board of Education. Today, Whites flee public schools demanding “choice” as they become significantly populated by Black and Hispanic students and so the neo-liberal paradigm that devalues public education—where most Black children are—has become official. Many Black parents support choice because it has been sold to them as providing the best education.

The Obama administration has put the largest amount of money on the table for education in the history of the country. But he needs to change the paradigm of accountability as punishment if a school doesn’t turn around, to emphasize what Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee, says should be providing the necessary resources to enrich the academic culture to enable these schools to succeed.

In this scheme of things, accountability should be changed to supplement the deficiencies in the resources foundation of a school, not to assume that all the needed resources are there and the teachers are the main culprit in lack of student achievement.

Teachers are but one factor. In a 21st century model of excellent education, the mountain of research that links poverty to education suggests that a more rigorous social unit should be developed for schools. Otherwise, the NCLB model of blaming teachers is what has led the Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee to fire 241 teachers, with 700 more on the list because they didn’t evaluate well on a questionable measurement standard.

The president suggests that while Duncan is “trying to shake things up,” those who oppose him either resist change or are “comfortable with the status quo.” Does he really believe that these civil rights organizations don’t want the best for Black children?

(Ron Walters is a political analysts and professor emeritus of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.)

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