Obama Strikes Back and Defends His Educational Initiative

The National Urban League, the NAACP and other civil rights groups blasted the president's $4.35 billion education program earlier this week. Today, in an address before the Urban League, President Obama had his say. He didn't hold back.

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In his address to the National Urban League's Centennial Conference in Washington, D.C., this morning, President Barack Obama laid out the future of America's embroiled educational plan while also chastising some of the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Prefacing the meat of his speech by saying, ''I was elected not just to do what was popular; I was elected to do what was right,'' Obama immediately acknowledged the controversy that's brewed this week around his new, $4.35 billion education program, Race to the Top. On Monday, the Urban League, along with the NAACP and five other civil rights organizations, called for the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to rethink Race to the Top, whose controversial policies -- closing low-performing schools, expanding charter schools -- they worry will prove detrimental to minority children. The groups also released their own educational framework, a campaign titled the National Opportunity to Learn.

Today Obama struck back. Calling Race to the Top "the single most important thing" he's done in office thus far, the president then said that criticism of the program "reflects a resistance to change." Dissatisfaction with the status quo was a common theme in the speech, one that resonated with many of the hundreds of people in attendance, who frequently interrupted his speech with applause. In his address, Obama mentioned the Urban League's assertion that minority students would suffer under Race to the Top, before adding his own punch line: ''What's not working [for minority kids] is the status quo.''

The president went on to denounce critics who argue that Obama should stabilize the national economy before focusing on education. ''Education is an economic issue, if not the economic issue of our time,'' he said. ''There is an achievement gap [in our schools] that is widening the income gap between black and white, between rich and poor ... This status quo is inexcusable, morally indefensible.''

Ultimately, Obama said, he wants the United States to have the most college graduates in the world by 2020, a goal that's going to be difficult to obtain if he can't even get the civil rights groups on his side. So far the National Urban League has not responded to the president's speech or commented further about Race to the Top, though dozens of conference attendees clamored for autographs and handshakes as he left the stage.

Cord Jefferson is The Root's Washington reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

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