Obama Sign Executive Order to Improve African-American Education

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Obama executive order photo

Black leaders join Obama at the signing

To address the alarming underperformance of African-American students in the nation’s school, President Obama yesterday signed an executive order establishing an office in the White House whose primary goal is to improve educational outcomes for Black students.

Surrounded by a host of Black political and educational leaders, in addition to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Obama signed the order in the Oval Office, establishing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, housed within the Department of Education.

The initiative, which will be run by a soon-to-be-named executive director, will establish a commission and a working group to advise the president and the various government agencies about policies and programs that can help turn around Black educational achievement. The new initiative will try to collaborate when appropriate with other White House initiatives already established for Hispanic students,  American Indian and Alaska Native students, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders students, and also historically Black colleges and universities—Obama started the HBCU initiative early in his term.

There was no funding attached to the order, so it’s not yet clear how many dollars will be allocated for the initiative, but the order said the new office will be expected to “periodically” publish reports.

“The Department shall provide funding and administrative support for the Initiative and the Working Group, to the extent permitted by law and within existing appropriations,” the order said. “To the extent permitted by law, other agencies and offices represented on the Working Group may detail personnel to the Initiative, to assist the Department in meeting the objectives of this order.”

In a speech on Wednesday night to the National Urban League convention in New Orleans, the president said he was signing the order “so every child has greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they’re born to the time, all through the time they get a career.”

While many will accuse him of using the order to shore up his support and enthusiasm for his re-election in the Black community, a White House official said this was “one more step along a path that the president has been walking,” citing his Race to the Top initiative challenging school districts to be innovative and his changes in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind.

Though he enjoys overwhelming support in the Black community, Obama has been criticized in the past by Black leaders for taking Black support for granted and not doing enough specifically for the African-American community. He addressed that criticism in an interview on BET last September.

“That’s not how America works,” the president said. “America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity.”

The executive order states that its purpose is “to restore the country to its role as the global leader in education, to strengthen the Nation by improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages, and to help ensure that all African Americans receive an education that properly prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives.”

There were a long list of ambitious goals the new office will undertake, including the following:
• increasing the general understanding of the causes of the educational challenges faced by African American students, whether they are in urban, suburban, or rural learning environments;

• increasing the percentage of African American children who enter kindergarten ready for success by improving their access to high-quality programs and services that enable early learning and development of children from birth through age 5;

• decreasing the disproportionate number of referrals of African American children from general education to special education by addressing the root causes of the referrals and eradicating discriminatory referrals;

• reducing the dropout rate of African American students and helping African American students graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.

In establishing the need for the order, Obama’s executive order listed the litany of African American educational failures:

“African Americans lack equal access to highly effective teachers and principals, safe schools, and challenging college-preparatory classes, and they disproportionately experience school discipline and referrals to special education,” the order said. “African American student achievement not only lags behind that of their domestic peers by an average of two grade levels, but also behind students in almost every other developed nation. Over a third of African American students do not graduate from high school on time with a regular high school diploma, and only four percent of African American high school graduates interested in college are college-ready across a range of subjects. An even greater number of African American males do not graduate with a regular high school diploma, and African American males also experience disparate rates of incarceration.”

In response to the president’s Urban League speech announcing the initiative, Mitt Romney spokesperson Tara Wall said, “As black Americans, we all take pride in Barack Obama’s historic election—but unfortunately his performance as president has not matched that enthusiasm.”