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Obama Restores Asian American Initiative, Gives Ed. Dept. a Lead Role

Two years after the Bush administration let its authority lapse, President Barack Obama has reinstated the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with the U.S. Education Department in a major leadership role.

Obama this month signed an executive order re-establishing the White House Initiative, to be co-chaired by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Education Department also will house the initiative. The department already is home to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

The chief goal of the latest initiative is to improve the quality of life for underserved Asian communities through greater participation in federal programs. In announcing the initiative, President Obama also noted that some Asian communities have high school dropout rates, low college enrollment rates, health disparities and high poverty rates.

Some of these individuals face language barriers and are subject to hate crimes, he said. In addition, there are other challenges “we don’t even know about” because of inadequate data collection. “Too often, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are all lumped into one category, so we don’t have accurate numbers reflecting the challenges of each individual community,” the president said. “Smaller communities in particular can get lost, their needs and concerns buried in a spreadsheet.”

The administration is expected to name an executive director for the initiative, much as the White House has selected individuals to head the HBCU and Hispanic initiatives. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter praised the move last week, citing it as one of the latest examples of administration efforts to reach out to minority-serving institutions and students of color. Directors of the HBCU and Hispanic initiatives have been engaged in extensive outreach efforts, including regional listening sessions, in recent months.

The Education Department already administers a small $5 million federal program of aid to Asian-American and Pacific Islander-serving colleges and universities. That program is open to postsecondary institutions whose undergraduate enrollment is at least 10 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

The White House said Duncan would co-chair the Asian American initiative with Gary Locke, an Asian-American who is Obama’s Secretary of Commerce.

Former President Bill Clinton created the Asian American initiative in 1999 and former President George W. Bush extended the program until 2007. Prominent Asian-Americans said the reinstatement of the initiative is long overdue.

Duncan, Locke and Kanter “all have a deep understanding of the challenges faced by our communities,” said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Unlike past Asian American White House initiatives, this new structure will give much greater visibility to education issues, said Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. “I am especially glad that the White House Initiative will be jointly led by the Department of Education for the first time in its history,” said Hirono, who predicted a “vigorous” effort to help Asian-Americans.

The new executive order will restore the Asian American initiative through October 2011. In addition to an executive director, the initiative will have an interagency working group across more than two dozen federal agencies.

In addition to the White House initiative, the executive order creates a commission to advise the president on Asian-American and Pacific Islander issues.


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