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U.S. Education Department, Civil Rights Leaders Discuss Reform

Civil rights leaders are criticizing Obama administration education reforms aimed at turning around low performing schools and closing the achievement gap for minority students.

Eight civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, contend in a document released Monday the Education Department is promoting ineffective approaches for failing schools. They also claim the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” grant competition – a program with a goal of spurring innovative reform in states – leaves out many minority students.

“We want to be supportive, but more important than supporting an administration is supporting our children across the country and ensuring that they have an opportunity to learn,” said John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Education, one of the groups that developed the document.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a White House adviser met with the groups Monday, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the presidents of the National Urban League and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The groups distributed the document to members of Congress last week.

Duncan has called education “the civil rights issue of our generation,” and many of the reforms the administration has pushed aim to improve educational opportunities for the most vulnerable students.

“The administration is dedicated to equity in education and we’ve been working very closely with the civil rights community to develop the most effective policies to close the achievement gap, turn around low performing schools and put a good teacher in every classroom,” Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said.

The Obama administration’s education reforms have drawn criticism from education advocates, including prominent teachers’ unions like the American Federation of Teachers, which gives money to many of the groups that signed the civil rights document. AFT President Randi Weingarten said she supports the proposal but that her organization had nothing to do with writing it.

“I think the civil rights movement has done something really important here,” Weingarten said. “They are setting a very different prescription for how to ensure quality education for all.”

The proposal calls into question many of the Education Department’s initiatives, including the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition and the $3.5 billion to turn around low performing schools.

Citing federal data, the groups say just 3 percent of the nation’s Black students and less than 1 percent of Latino students are impacted by the first round of the Race to the Top competition, which awarded about $600 million for Tennessee and Delaware to undertake innovative reforms.

“No state should have to compete to protect the civil rights of their children in their states,” John Jackson said.

The document also proposes creating standards for equal access to early childhood education, effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum and quality resources. And it takes a critical viewpoint of the administration’s approach to turn around failing schools, including closing them or replacing much of the staff.

“Low-performing schools will not improve unless we also change the resources, conditions and approaches to teaching and learning within the schools or their replacements,” the assessment states.

But the plan has one glaring omission: no Hispanic groups signed on to support it.

Raul Gonzalez from the National Council of La Raza said his organization decided not to endorse the document because there were concerns with how the groups see charter schools. The civil rights groups want charter schools to focus more on attracting diversity than the needs of the children in their community, Gonzalez said.

“To suggest that a charter school started by community members who want to help kids in their community cannot serve 100 percent Hispanic kids in a community that’s 100 percent Hispanic — that they should be penalized for that or they shouldn’t be allowed to open up — that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

But he applauded the civil rights groups for pushing for more financial support for programs that would help increase parental involvement in schools.

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