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Civil Rights Groups Call for New Federal Education Agenda

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Seven leading civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, called on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today to dismantle core pieces of his education agenda, arguing that his emphases on expanding charter schools, closing low-performing schools, and using competitive rather than formula funding are detrimental to low-income and minority children.

The groups, which today released their own education policy framework and created the National Opportunity to Learn campaign, want Duncan to make big changes to his draft proposal for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

UPDATE (11:35 a.m.): The Education Department just now offered this response: "We're listening. The administration is dedicated to equity in education and we've been working very closely with the civil rights community to develop the most effective policies to close the achievement gap, turn around low performing schools, and put a good teacher in every classroom. The civil rights community has thoughtfully helped guide our thinking on these critical issues and we need their continued leadership as we move forward to overhaul NCLB."

What's even more interesting is that a big event planned to release the framework this morning in conjunction with the National Urban League's annual conference was mysteriously cancelled (or postponed, depending on whom you ask) after a lot of press releases went out last week trying to drum up interest. The official explanation is that there was a "conflict in schedules." However, I can't help but wonder if the facts that President Obama has agreed to deliver a major education reform speech at the conference on Thursday, and that Duncan is scheduled to address the conference on Wednesday, had something to do with it. Surely the Obama administration was none too pleased to see that these groups planned to criticize his education reform agenda.

In addition, the National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, was listed on the press releases that went out late last week announcing the event as a supporter of the new framework, but in the framework released today, the group is conspicuously missing.

The groups that signed on to the framework want Duncan to dial back his enthusiasm for and "extensive reliance" on charter schools as a solution for turning around persistently struggling schools in urban areas. They also object to core components of his four models for turning around the nation's worst schools, saying that school closure and wholesale changes in school staff should only be used as a last resort. And they take sharp issue with the Race to the Top program, declaring that a reliance on competitive funding and hand-picking winners means the majority of low-income and minority kids, who may reside in the losing states, will not benefit from additional federal funds.

The supporting groups are: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; National Urban League; The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; National Council on Educating Black Children; Rainbow PUSH Coalition; and The Schott Foundation for Public Education.

If you think back to the 2008 campaign season, and the split that emerged on education issues within the Democratic Party, this tends to lean more towards a Broader, Bolder agenda—and group of folks—although there are elements of the Education Equality approach embedded in this document as well.

In addition to wanting Duncan to reverse course, the groups want the Department of Education to add or strengthen a few things in the ESEA blueprint, including universal access to early education for all children in all states. They want to strengthen the ability of students in low-performing schools to transfer to higher performing ones, although Duncan has been backing away from current choice provisions already embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act. And they want, among other things, for the feds to hold states and districts more accountable in how they spend and distribute money from school to school.

One thing Duncan already has agreed to do: require parental engagement as part of the school turnaround process. That's another recommendation in the civil rights groups' proposal.

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