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Civil rights groups are picking the wrong fight with President Obama

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By Ruth Marcus
Friday, July 30, 2010

There is, it turns out, something more galling than teachers unions fighting against proposals that would improve education for students in the worst-performing schools. At least the teachers unions are, presumably, acting in the economic self-interest of their members.

What's more galling is that civil rights groups would oppose Obama administration initiatives to improve failing schools -- initiatives that hold the greatest promise for the same minority students whose interests these groups purport to represent. And that the basis for their opposition is the claim that the initiatives are unfair to minority and low-income students.

I know Kanye West said that George W. Bush didn't like black people, but are civil rights groups really insinuating that Barack Obama doesn't care about black children?

I'm sure they would disclaim any such intent, but that is the import of the statement released Monday by eight groups: the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Council for Educating Black Children, the National Action Network, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

As it happened, the president was scheduled to speak to the Urban League on Thursday -- and he took the opportunity to push back.

Good for him.

"Let me tell you, what's not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo," Obama said. "What's not working is what we've been doing for decades now."

This was not a Sister Souljah moment for the president, an exercise in demonstrating independence from a key Democratic Party constituency. When it comes to education policy, at least, Obama doesn't need to. The squealing from teachers unions, particularly the National Education Association, has done that for him. And while he promised an "honest conversation" about the civil rights' groups concerns, the president's tone was rather gentle.

Gentler, actually, than mine would have been.

First, the groups blast the administration's signature education reform, its $4 billion Race to the Top fund, because, they argue, the program does not do enough for minority children. "By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind," the statement says.

But where, pray tell, are these children now? Race to the Top has demonstrated the power of leveraging: With the prospect of money dangled before them, states have instituted important changes before receiving a dime. The 21 states that have qualified for funds are home to two-thirds of the minority children in this country. And, as the president pointed out, the only way to win a Race to the Top grant is to come up with a plan to deal with failing schools.

Second, the groups criticize the administration's "extensive reliance on charter schools," expressing concern about "the overrepresentation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities." Charter schools are in those communities precisely because that's where failing schools are. The whole point is to give parents and students in those communities an acceptable choice.

The groups assert that there is "no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide." But the latest studies suggest that charters are especially effective in boosting performance among low-income students.

Third, the groups say the administration is trigger-happy when it comes to closing failing schools. Better trigger-happy, perhaps, than inert. Too many schools have been failing for too long, with no changes and no consequences. When the 2,000 worst-performing high schools account for 75 percent of minority-student dropouts, something is dangerously wrong. More is risked by letting these schools remain open than in closing them precipitously.

There is a historical alignment of interests between civil rights groups and teachers unions, in part because teachers have traditionally made up such a large segment of the black middle class and because so many teachers in inner-city schools are themselves African American.

But to the extent that the teachers unions are blocking an agenda designed to help the poorest students in the worst-performing schools, and that civil rights groups have aligned themselves with the unions' concerns, these groups are making a terrible mistake.

Obama comes to the education debate from the perspective of a community organizer who saw, firsthand, children who were not learning in schools that were failing them. His mission, as president, to change this situation is one that civil rights groups should be cheering, not picking apart.

marcusr@washpost.com


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