Barack Obama's Education Grade
6 months ago
What the president has done on education gets high marks.
While the nation was gearing up for the Olympics, President Barack Obama was quietly extending his legacy. On July 26, he signed an executive order establishing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The initiative, which will be administered by the Department of Education, aims to “strengthen the nation by improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages, and help ensure that African Americans receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college, a satisfying career, and productive citizenship.”
It’s not a surprising action when you consider the president’s stump speeches and his own story. At the National Action Network’s Keepers of the Dream Awards Gala last year, he called education “the civil rights issue of our time,” and said that “giving every one of our children the best possible education…is the single most important factor in determining whether they succeed.”
It’s a philosophy that Melody Barnes, the president's former domestic policy advisor, says is ingrained in who he is as a person and a leader.
“For all of us who understand Civil Rights history, ultimately, the fight for the laws and the changes to the Constitution were a matter of creating greater opportunity for African Americans and others who had been treated unfairly. We’ve seen a lot accomplished because of those laws, but at the same time, we know there are still so many barriers,” she explains. “Having worked with the president and understanding his background and his work in communities where there are a number of people of color, and where there are also people who have been in tough economic straits for some time, I believe that education can be the key to moving forward generation by generation. The president and first lady not only talk about that publicly, but they talk about it personally. The president understands that in a very intuitive way, but also in a practical and economic way as well.”
In our Education Special earlier this fall, we reported that from early education through college, African Americans are typically behind the curve. Here, we examine how the education policies of the president’s first term have addressed the causes of this opportunity gap.
[READ MORE: EXAMINING OBAMA'S FIRST TERM]
For Shirlene Payne, sending her youngest daughter, Samara, to Head Start was a no brainer. The Westwood, N.J., mother of three had firsthand experience that it worked: She had enrolled her oldest daughter, CheyAri (now 12) out of necessity back in 2004.
“I decided to return to school to complete my bachelor's in social work. But there was no way to raise children and work and do the program," says Payne. "I found out about Head Start through a community agency and enrolled her. Because of the full-day program, I was able to go back full-time.”
There are more than 300,000 African American preschoolers enrolled in the program, which provides early education for children whose families’ income falls below the federal poverty line, which currently sits at $15,130 for a family of two.
Payne enrolled her second daughter, Anaya, in Head Start three years later. “It was such a positive experience. The outcomes where great; my other daughters were socially and academically ready for school. I couldn’t possibly think of putting Samara anywhere else.”
Payne was so impressed with the program that she joined the board of directors for the Bergen County Community Action Partnership, which administers the program locally. As the liaison for policy counsel, she’s very familiar with the impact of the president’s $5 billion investment in early learning programs, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.