Oldspeak: “If Obama really believes quality education for all children is a civil right, why are children via their states, being forced to compete for education funds on an uneven playing field, in a laborious process as required by Obama’s new education policy “RACE TO THE TOP”? Hmmm… saying one thing and doing another, it’s becoming a common theme for this Administration.” 😐
“Education is the Civil Rights issues of our time.” This statement has been made by President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and a host of civil rights organizations all concerned with the continuing failing state of the country’s schools.
While most of us can agree that quality education should be provided to all children, regardless of race, class, or other statuses, the way to achieve this equality is hotly contested.
Obama’s rapid ascendancy to the presidency was followed by a slow introduction of his Blueprint for Education Reform, which introduced the Race to the Top (RTT) fund which is a 4.35 million dollar fund available for school improvement to states. Sounds great, right? The catch is these funds must be won, they are not equally distributed to states.
Recently a number of the nation’s leading Civil Rights and Education Advocacy organizations challenged Obama and Duncan suggesting that competition could serve to leave states and schools where Black, Brown and poor children attend further behind than already well-resourced states. Some of the greatest disparities in funding lie between states and having an inter-state competition sets a dangerous precedent that could deepen inequality, rather than reduce it.
Last week, Obama and Duncan took to the stage to speak at the National Urban League Annual convening about the problem of education. Their speeches outlined the various issues and needs that schools across the nation faced as well as some success stories. This is standard political fare, but Obama and Duncan dared to boldly respond to the critiques of the National Urban League, The Schott Foundation for Public Education, and other concerned educational advocates. These Civil Rights organizations made suggestions on the next steps for education policy and challenged Obama and Duncan by asking, “If education is a civil right, children in “winning” states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high-quality environments.”
Soon after entering office in 2001, George W. Bush introduced the No Child Left Behind Act, one of the most drastic overhauls to education policy to date. Since Obama has entered office, he has not created a new policy. Rather he’s introduced the Race to the Top fund which has gotten schools to change their practices in pursuit of dollars. While the Bush policy threatened “the stick”, the Obama policy “dangles the carrot.” While this may seem ideal, in reality the states that are resource rich, or in this case well fed, are most likely to get the carrot, while the states that are resource poor, or famished, states will likely go without food.
The high demands of the Race to the Top applications make the states with the greatest number of resources most likely to be competitive and succeed at “winning” funds. With an application that is over 100 pages and sets of demands to change long standing traditions for a chance to win dollars for education, many states will have a long way to go before they can expect to realistically compete. Alternatively, well resourced states are already in an advantaged position to compete and win crucial education dollars. While spending on education has been increasing, making resources competitive rather than commonly available could set the table for deepening education inequalities.
At its best, Obama’s Race to the Top fund encourages innovation that may lead to higher quality education for all. At its worst, states may chase money by bundling ineffective yet “innovative” policies. When Obama campaigned, he often said, “The problem with No Child Left Behind is that Bush left the money behind.” If this is true, the problem with the Race to the Top is that it leaves behind equity for money. We all want change in education, but competing for a civil right is wrong.
R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being. He blogs regularly at www.uptownnotes.comand you can follow him on twitter @dumilewis