Wednesday—July 25—President Obama spoke before the Urban League’s nation convention, held this year in New Orleans. If you can believe the multiple insertions of “Applause” that punctuate the text of his remarks as posted on the White House’s website, his comments were well received by his audience.
Some of those comments were also well received by Miss. Here is the beginning of the President’s riff on education:
I believe strong communities are built on strong schools. (Applause.) If this country is about anything, it’s about passing on even greater opportunity to the next generation. And we know that has to start before a child even walks into the classroom. It starts at home with parents who are willing to read to their children, and spend time with their children — (applause) — and instill a sense of curiosity and love of learning and a belief in excellence that will last a lifetime.
Those lines about reading to your kids, and giving them the gifts of curiosity, high standards and love of learning are wonderful, and all parents would do well to heed them. Note, however, the absence of applause. Curious. I’d’ve been clapping madly.
The President continues, shifting from first-person singular—his trademark “I”—to first-person plural—“we”—presumably to signal the audience’s membership on Team Obama. It is at this point that I stop putting my hands together:
But it [“passing on even greater opportunity to the next generation”] also begins with an early childhood education, which is why we’ve invested more in child care, and in programs like Early Head Start and Head Start that help prepare our young people for success. It’s the right thing to do for America. (Applause.)
Note the applause.
Has the President forgotten that his own Department of Health and Human Services concluded in 2010 that the cognitive and social benefits for children participating in Head Start were negligible to nil after the first grade, and that only health benefits—specifically, access to dental care—showed a slight improvement. Continuing to “invest” in a program of such proven dubious outcomes hardly seems the “right thing to do.” Or, to use the President’s favorite word, “fair.” He continues:
Our education policy hasn’t just been based on more money, we’ve also called for real reform. So we challenged every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and for learning. And three years later, nearly every state has answered the call. We have seen the biggest transformation in terms of school reform in a generation, and we’ve helped some of the country’s lowest-performing schools make real gains in reading and math, including here in New Orleans. (Applause.)
We’ve made it our mission to make a higher education more affordable for every American who wants to go to school. That’s why we fought to extend our college tuition tax credit for working families — (applause) — saving millions of families thousands of dollars.
That’s why we’ve fought to make college more affordable for an additional 200,000 African American students by increasing Pell grants. (Applause.) That’s why we’ve strengthened this nation’s commitment to our community colleges, and to our HBCUs. (Applause.)
That’s why, tomorrow, I’m establishing the first-ever White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans –- (applause) — so that every child has greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they’re born all through the time they get a career.
As you know, heretofore, the Pell Grant Program awarded $5,500 annually to qualifying undergraduates without (as is the law of the land) regard to their race. One is compelled to ask, Mr. President, out of what context does one misread “we’ve fought to make college more affordable for an additional 200,000 African American students by increasing Pell grants”? Who are the unnamed “we” who have changed the intent of the Pell Grant Program–and why?
What is the “the first-ever White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans” that will give every black child “greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they’re born all through the time they get a career”? Apparently, the cocoon of governmental support that was good enough for Julia is not sufficient to provide educational support for African Americans. If the President is saying, as he certainly seems to be, that both the Civil Rights Act and the Higher Education Act have failed black Americans, why throw good legislation (or executive action) after bad? The President and I agree that the system of education, K-16+ is not in good shape. We know, from looking at per-pupil costs across the spectrum of schools–city and suburban, majority and majority-minority–, that money alone is not the answer. We also know that making schools a semi-substitute for home life (three meals a day, health care, after-school programs) hasn’t worked either. But we both also know the answer: the President himself offered it in the remarks that opened this section of the address to the Urban League. If there is money to be had for creating “educational excellence,” hadn’t it best be spent where it might actually make a difference: building stronger families. A simple solution that mean a tsumani of change in the way experts look at the problem of “failing schools.”
The President ends the education section of this speech with a joke:
And that’s why we’re pushing all colleges and universities to cut their costs — (applause) — because we can’t keep asking taxpayers to subsidize skyrocketing tuition. A higher education in the 21st century cannot be a luxury. It is a vital necessity that every American should be able to afford. (Applause.) I want all these young people to be getting a higher education, and I don’t want them loaded up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt just to get an education. That’s how we make America great. (Applause.)
Surely the president is aware that the lion’s share of costs at colleges and universities–public and private–is compensation. Often union-negotiated wages, sometimes not. Is he suggesting faculty and staff take pay cuts? Or that faculty:student ratios go up? Is he suggesting that the other budget-buster for many institutions–swanky new facilities for students–stop being built, thereby putting construction workers out of jobs? Get real.
The subject of whether baccalaureate education is “vital” for all Americans is debatable at best, and, at worst, is for society a pernicious conceit. But that’s another discussion best saved for when the President makes his next pronouncement on education. For now, forget the applause. Cue the hook.