Invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan told listeners at a Congressional Black Caucus event Monday that the only way to improve economic conditions for low-income minorities was to close the education gap.
In 1966, King visited the North Lawndale community on Chicago’s West Side, Duncan said. After King lamented the neighborhood’s poverty and slum-like conditions, billions of dollars poured in to fund antipoverty and job placement programs.
"When I took over the Chicago public schools in 2001, 35 years later, the children in North Lawndale were still desperately poor," said Duncan. “For all those billions of dollars of investment, you have to ask yourself why that was the case. I would submit to you that the one thing that didn’t change in the community is the only thing with the power to end cycles of poverty, and that’s the quality of education.”
To help shrink the education gap, Duncan said the Obama administration was prepared to invest $350 million to increase access to high quality early childhood education programs. He called the programs “paramount if the nation truly is serious about closing its achievement and opportunity gaps.
" Glorified babysitting doesn’t get us where we need to go,” he continued. “If our children enter kindergarten with literacy and socialization skills intact, they have a chance to be very, very successful.”
Duncan pointed to the 41 states that have raised their K-12 standards as success stories that will benefit children from underserved communities.
“For the first time in this country, a child in Massachusetts and a child in Mississippi are going to be measured by the same yardstick,” he said. “We’re going to stop lying to children and families and tell them the truth. The truth may be we have a long way to go but … we can’t say they’re at the same standard when they’re not close to being college or career ready.”
According to Duncan, the administration plans to invest $4 billion in school improvement grants to turn around the nation’s underperforming schools. Half of the students that drop out of school each year attended 2,000 out of the nation’s 100,000 schools, and 75 percent of them were Black or Hispanic. The Secretary called such disproportion “morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.”
Among the issues on the Education Department’s agenda is finding replacements for the approximately 1 million Baby Boomer teachers preparing to retire in coming years. Duncan said the department has recently begun a national effort to help fill the void by significantly increasing the number of minority men who enter the teaching profession. These male teachers, Duncan said, are desperately needed as role models and mentors.
“Our ability to attract and retain a diverse pool of talent is going to shape public education in our country for the next 30 years,” he said. “Schools haven’t been very creative on this and haven’t pushed the envelope, so we’re trying to start a national campaign.”
Improving minority and low-income elementary school success rates would directly impact the department’s overall goal of dramatically increasing college graduation rates, Duncan said. He pointed to educational failures as a primary reason for the current economic crisis, saying millions of well-compensated American jobs went unfilled because of an undereducated workforce.
Duncan cited a number of steps the administration has taken to improve access to higher education, most notably by increasing funding for the Pell Grant and other financial aid programs. But he also warned that some of those advances are under attack. In the continuing resolution recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, Pell Grants were cut by $850 per award, which Duncan said would result in more young people dropping out of college. He said the Obama administration plans to aggressively fight the cut.
In introducing the secretary, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., praised the administration’s effort to pass a “gainful employment” rule, which would tie federal financial aid to for-profit colleges to their graduation rates. Davis said the law is critical to protect students from graduating from a for-profit college with nothing to show for it but massive student loan debt.
Duncan said that all schools, for-profit and otherwise, need to improve their graduation rates, and emphasized that the department supports effective for-profit universities.
“We want a lot more of that,” he said. “But in those cases where 90 percent of the funding is coming from the federal government … we can’t continue to subsidize the status quo.”