WASHINGTON, D.C. – The country won’t regain its position as the most college-educated nation in the world unless it eliminates disparities in public education at the pre-school through high school levels, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a gathering of civil rights activists on Thursday.
“For everything we said we cared about, the fact of the matter remains that there’s tremendous inequality in opportunity for children where it matters the most,” Duncan said to attendees of the 14th annual convention of the National Action Network founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The convention drew roughly 2,000 people, about 100 of whom attended the “National Education Breakfast” segment of the convention where Duncan spoke.
Citing dropout statistics that are as high as 50 percent in Black and Latino communities, Duncan stressed the need for post-secondary education in order to land a decent-paying job in today’s economy.
“How many good jobs are out there if you’ve dropped out of high school? None,” Duncan said. “One generation ago we led the world in college graduates. Now we’re 16th and we wonder why we’re struggling economically,” he said, lamenting an often cited statistic that roughly 2 million high wage, high skill jobs have gone unfilled because of the lack of skilled workers in the American workforce.
“If you take the high dropout rate, the lack of college success, the high unemployment rate, this is no time to sit idly by and hope for things to get better,” Duncan said, urging those in the audience to get involved in education by doing things such as mentoring and tutoring.
Duncan said socioeconomic inequality stems less today from race and class and more from lack of equality in academic opportunity. No matter how tough of a neighborhood a child is from, he said, if the child receives a quality early childhood education and attends high school where college prep courses are offered, “I’m very optimistic about that young child’s chances in life.”
But if students have less access to rigorous courses than children in more affluent areas, Duncan said, “How do we expect them to be successful to compete if we don’t give them the opportunity?”
Listing a series of investments the Obama administration has made in early childhood education and K-12 reform, Duncan said, “The goal is to graduate children college and career ready” and to make the United States the world leader in college graduation rates.
“We won’t get there unless we improve the graduation rates in our Black and Latino communities, “Duncan said to a mostly enthusiastic crowd.
Despite the crowd’s warm reaction, which was followed by Sharpton’s embrace of Duncan as a “friend of this organization and a partner for progress,” some of the dissonance between Duncan and Sharpton’s followers began to surface as many questioned the education secretary about growing public school closures and the rise in prominence of charter schools. These are two things Duncan has supported both as CEO of the public schools system in Chicago and now as education secretary.
Duncan kept the focus on the need to improve high school graduation rates and to curtail the nation’s dropout epidemic, irrespective of whether those things are being achieved through implementing charter schools or closing failing public schools.
“We’ve fought so many of the wrong battles,” Duncan said in response to questioners who broached the topic of why public money is being spent on charter schools instead of fixing public schools.
“The only enemy is academic failure,” Duncan said. “We have to fight the right fights and fight them with much greater intensity.”
As questioners continued to press Duncan on the issue of supporting charter schools, Sharpton intervened.
“We are concerned about schools being closed for charters, but I am equally concerned that we protect schools that are not working,” Sharpton said, complaining that he didn’t want National Action Network and other civil rights leaders to be used as “cover for schools that are not doing anything.”
The cooperation between Duncan and Sharpton is not new. In 2009, after a meeting between Sharpton and former House speaker Newt Gingrich with President Obama, Obama had Duncan host Sharpton and Gingrich on a tour of cities to discuss the administration’s reform efforts and to discuss problems facing the nation’s schools.
Sharpton noted that Duncan had attended every National Action Network convention since Obama has been in office.