"Educational Equity is the Civil Rights issue of our generation." Education Secretary, Arne Duncan
In a speech at the National Urban League's Centennial Conference on July 28th, one day before President Obama's appearance, Education Secretary Arne Duncan directly addressed one of the civil rights community's major concerns about education reform. Speaking to an audience of several thousand at the Washington Convention Center, Secretary Duncan said, "Based on an idea that came directly from the Urban League and members of Congress like Chakah Fattah and Mike Honda, we are today proposing the creation of an Equity and Excellence Commission to look at the all important issue of school funding."
The National Urban League and many others in the civil rights community have long-noted the inequity in public school funding as a contributing factor to the achievement gap that finds half of African American and Latino students dropping out of high school. Because school funding relies so heavily on state and local taxes, Secretary Duncan admitted that "America's system of funding public education is inherently unequal." He pointed out that "Over 40 states have faced legal challenges to their school funding system because they are so unfair."
The Equity Commission, formally proposed by Pennsylvania Congressman Chakah Fattah and California Congressman Mike Honda, will be housed in the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali. The Commission will "expose the inequities in funding, gather public input and issue policy recommendations on finance reform." The goal is to close the gap in resource distribution between rich and poor schools.
As Congressman Fattah noted, this is a "significant milestone in the historic effort to close achievement gaps that have plagued our nation's schools."
Secretary Duncan emphasized that he and the President remain open to ideas from the civil rights community as they attempt to reshape public education to improve teacher and student performance. Declaring that "In so many ways, our reform agenda is all about equity," he noted the Obama Administration's doubling in funding for parent engagement, as well as the addition of $40 billion in Pell grants, $2.5 billion for minority colleges, including $1 billion for HBCU's, and an investment of $2 billion for community colleges.
He also pointed to the successful turnaround of formerly failing schools like Washington, DC's Banneker High School, as proof that the "quiet revolution" in education is beginning to produce results. Throughout this country, educators and others are "trying new approaches to attract good teachers into schools serving low income and minority students…and they are closing achievement gaps."
Ensuring that every child is ready for college, work and life by the year 2025 is one of the four goals of the National Urban League's centennial year I AM EMPOWERED campaign. We applaud the President and Secretary Duncan for establishing the Equity and Excellence Commission to make sure that every child regardless of race, ethnicity or income has an equal chance to succeed. And we pledge to continue working with the Administration to create an education system that is worthy of our children and our future.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.