President Barack Obama offered a forceful defense today of his signature education initiative, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, which rewards states for making progress on raising standards, improving teacher quality, establishing data systems, and turning around low-performing schools.
The program—and Mr. Obama's prescription for turning around those low-performing schools—has come under sharp criticism lately from civil rights groups, who say distributing funds through competitive grants hinders poor and minority students, whose schools may not have the resources to compete for the dollars. His speech to the National Urban League this morning offered a rebuttal to such criticism and echoed much of what U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan said to the same group yesterday.
Mr. Obama argued that the steps that Race to the Top encourages states to take, including lifting the cap on charter schools and using student data to inform teacher evaluation, are the right ones.
"None of this should be controversial. There should be a fuss if we weren't doing these things," Mr. Obama said.
And he touted the program's other aims, including encouraging states to work together to adopt higher, more uniform academic standards. That's a departure from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which he said inadvertently rewarded states for lowering standards. And he said Race to the Top would help states develop richer assessments that do a better job of gauging what students know so that teachers can improve instruction, instead of "teaching to the test."
Obama made it clear he doesn't want to see wholesale changes to the program, which two congressional committees recently voted to extend for an additional year, albeit not at the level the administration asked for in its budget request. Recently, the House voted to trim $500 million from the program to help pay for a $10 billion to stave off teacher layoffs, but the legislation did not gain support in the Senate.
"I'll continue to fight for Race to the Top with everything I've got, including using a veto to prevent folks from watering it down," Mr. Obama said.
UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): Michele just talked to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was originally on the press release as a supporter of this new framework. He told her that the critical framework was "prematurely released" and that his National Action Network, the NAACP, and the Urban League, are actually not supporters of the framework. He added that these three groups didn't have "concerns" about the President's education agenda, but "questions," which were addressed in a Monday meeting with administration officials. In fact, the Rev. Sharpton said, "I agree with [the president]...I'm prepared to fight for a lot of what he's saying."