Speaking at the Urban League's convention marking its 100th anniversary, President Obama explained today how his administration's policies have helped reduce the achievement gap between African-American and white communities, while also stressing that both families and the government must work harder to ensure that minority students have the same educational opportunities as all other children.
The president told the audience at the Washington Convention Center in DC that his administration made reforming the health-care system and the financial industry some of its top priorities, to stem a recession that “has an especially brutal impact on minority communities that were already struggling before the financial crisis hit." He said the health-reform law will "narrow the cruel disparities between Americans of different backgrounds" by giving consumers more control over their health care.
Part of Obama's explanation of these efforts highlighted a persistent challenge for his administration: its difficulty in effectively explaining how its initiatives are helping communities in need.
"This is something a lot of you may not be aware of," Obama said, "but we've added tens of millions of dollars that were going to bank middlemen" to federal aid for schools.
Obama also spoke to the audience about the Department of Education's $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" initiative, which provides grants to schools that improve their performance based on the program's standards.
He acknowledged that there is "often a controversy about national standards," which many state officials claim "violates the principle of local control." Obama countered that as an elective program, "Race to the Top" does not impose on state authority.
"Instead of Washington imposing standards from the top down, let's challenge states to adopt common standards voluntarily from the bottom up that doesn't mean more standards; it means higher standards," Obama said. "We're investing over 4 billion dollars to help them. Which even in Washington is real money," he added, chuckling with the crowd.
He also pointed out that minority students will benefit particularly from the program's goal of targeting the 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the country. "I don't think it's any secret but most of those are serving African American and Hispanic kids," he said.
He also took a quick jab at his predecessor's administration, drawing a comparison between his education program and George W. Bush's. "Unlike No Child Left Behind, this isn't about labeling a school a failure then throwing your hands up and saying we give up on you. This is about investing in a school's future."
As he has several times in the past, Obama exhorted African-American parents to get more involved in their children’s education.
"In the past, even that statement has provoked controversy," Obama said. "Folks have said, 'Why are you talking about parents? Parents need help too. I know that. Parents need jobs; they need housing; they need in some cases social services; and they have substance abuse problems. We're working on all those fronts," he said.
He also shot down what he called suppositions that he only speaks about parental involvement to African-American communities. "I talk about parental responsibility wherever I talk about education," he argued. "Michelle and I happen to be black parents so ... I may add a little oomph to it when I'm talking to black parents," he added, laughing with the crowd.
Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama said education "isn't an either-or proposition; it's a both-and proposition. It will take both more focus from our parents and better schooling," he said, competing with applause and cheers from the audience. "It will take both more money and more reform."