On Thursday, July 29th, President Barack Obama delivered an important speech on education at the National Urban League's Centennial Conference in Washington, DC. The President began by honoring the National Urban League for "opening up opportunity, rolling back inequality, and making our union just a little more perfect" during our first century of service. He then used the bulk of his time to address one of the most important and controversial issues of his presidency - improving American education, increasing graduation rates, lifting up failing schools and closing the achievement gap that is leaving too many students of color behind.
At a time when 15 million Americans are out of work and the nation remains mired in a great recession, the President pointed out that education is "the economic issue of our time." He went on to say that "It's an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. It's an economic issue when eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of the decade. It's an economic issue when countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow."
But as the importance of education increases, the performance of our schools and students has declined. In a single generation, America has gone from number one in the world to number 12 in college graduation rates and our 8th graders trail 10 other nations in science and math. And when it comes to black students, the President noted, "African American students trail not only almost every other developed nation abroad, but they badly trail their white classmates here at home - an achievement gap that is widening the income gap between black and white, between rich and poor."
The centerpiece of the President's prescription for improving American education is a program called "Race to the Top," which offers $4.35 billion in competitive grants to states that adopt a set of reforms designed to raise standards and teacher quality, turnaround low performing schools, and establish statewide data systems. The President called Race to the Top, "the single most ambitious, meaningful education reform effort we've attempted in this country in generations." He said he will continue to fight for it "with everything I've got…"
While the National Urban League and other civil rights groups support the objectives of the President's reform efforts, we are working with him and Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, to ensure that students and teachers get the support they need to make it work.
Ensuring that every American child is ready for college, work and life by the year 2025 is one of the four goals of the National Urban League's "I AM EMPOWERED" centennial year campaign. We applaud the President for taking on this tough issue and for making it the focus of his visit to our national conference. We pledge to continue working with him to get it right. To read the President's speech in its entirety log onto http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-education-reform-national-urban-league-centennial-conference.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.