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Obama Defends School Agenda Against Civil Rights,Union Critics

Criticisms of the federal Race to the Top education initiative partly reflect “a general resistance to change” and “a comfort with the status quo,” said President Barack Obama in prepared remarks for a speech today at the National Urban League in Washington.

Obama’s speech comes as plans to overhaul U.S. public education face opposition from his Democratic base, Congressional Republicans and state legislatures that could block implementation. The administration has succeeded in getting at least 29 states and the District of Columbia to sign on to common academic standards that would for the first time set shared performance goals for math and reading. Through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has prodded states to lift caps on charter schools and link student achievement to teacher pay.

While Obama and Duncan are proposing changes designed to garner bipartisan support, political divisions are endangering the chance they will actually be carried out, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers’ College at Columbia University.

“Politically the agenda is working in the near-term, but there are risks,” Henig said.

Republicans in Massachusetts, Texas and Alaska are attacking the common standards, calling them a federal takeover of local school-district policy. A proposed school-turnaround program, which allows districts to fire teachers and replace principals in poorly performing schools, is under attack from teachers’ unions and community groups. Obama has also failed to get enough Congressional support for a $10 billion bill aimed at saving tens of thousands of teacher jobs from state and local budget cuts.

Union Opposition

One trouble spot for the Obama administration is dissent from Democratic constituencies. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers criticized school turnaround proposals as part of a simplistic, “blame the teacher” approach in a July 8 speech at the union’s convention in Seattle.

Obama’s prepared remarks said the administration wants to give teachers the resources they need to perform their jobs well.

“Our goal isn’t to fire or admonish teachers,” the remarks said. “Our goal is accountability.”

Instead of a culture idolizing sports stars or celebrities, “I want us to build a culture where we idolize the people who shape our children’s future,” the remarks said.

Civil rights leaders are also calling Obama-Duncan programs into question. On July 26, a coalition of groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League released a report criticizing Race to the Top and other “market-based” programs for unequally distributing government funding and support.

‘Competitive Incentives’

“By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader,” according to the report.

The Obama administration arranged for Obama’s speech in response to these criticisms, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

“When leaders like Jesse Jackson raise questions about the direction of education policy, it’s like the Chamber of Commerce telling George Bush we were going the wrong direction on tax policy,” Jennings said. “Obama has to assure them somehow that he is not only concerned about a few kids, but about all kids. He has a selling job to do.”

Bipartisan Commission

Secretary Duncan announced yesterday he would form a bipartisan commission to study equity in public education and promised to pursue federal policies that distribute resources fairly.

“In so many ways, our reform agenda is all about equity,” Duncan said in a speech at a conference in Washington. “Competition isn’t about winners and losers. It’s about getting better.”

Parts of Obama’s agenda have also faced objections from Republicans. Alaska and Texas refused to adopt the common standards for math and reading formulated by the National Governors’ Association and endorsed by the Obama Administration. Obama and Duncan have failed to muster Republican support for the $10 billion “Keep Our Educators Working Act,” introduced by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. The bill would provide federal funding to save teachers’ jobs.

Political Will

It’s unclear whether the changes states promised on their applications for Race to the Top will materialize, particularly for states that ultimately do not win funding, said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.

“Getting states to say they will do things and actually getting them to do them are two different things,” Whitehurst said. “The political will to carry out the promised reforms will diminish over time.”

The fault lines of the battles over education policy could emerge after the Race to the Top contest concludes.

“The money you can get if you play the game has really put a damper on some of the voices of opposition,” said Henig of Columbia University. “I don’t know how long that can last.”

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