This is Part 4 of The Agenda: What Obama Has Done for You, a series of articles looking at President Barack Obama's record on issues that affect blacks.
There is perhaps no issue more important to the black community's success than education. Few things — health care included — can practically guarantee a life filled with opportunity the way a comprehensive education can, and a testament to its power is how long blacks in America were literally banned from schooling.
Today African Americans are still facing tremendous challenges on the road toward high-quality education for all. In 2007, 54 percent of black children were obtaining high school diplomas, and that same year, only 43 percent of black college students ultimately completed their education and received a degree. Race aside, U.S. children in general trail the world in math and science ability.
In response to these abysmal statistics, President Obama has made education reform a primary fight of his administration. And, as with most of his other policies, he's taken note of the plight of African Americans.
K-12: Establishing a Solid Foundation
"We've got to focus on the early years through 12th grade," says Melody Barnes, director of the White House's Domestic Policy Council, "because we have to ensure a complete and competitive education for all students so that they're prepared for college and career."
In order to jump-start early public education, Obama's main strategy has been his Race to the Top grant program. Using a point system that rewards things like "improved teacher effectiveness" and "making education funding a priority," the Department of Education then doles out grants to the highest-achieving states.
Inherent in the scoring system is also a demand for racial justice. Points are awarded for states "demonstrating significant progress" in closing achievement gaps and "ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals" in high-poverty and high-minority schools.
As of August, 11 states and the District of Columbia had won $4.3 billion in Race to the Top grants. The administration estimates that these funds "will directly impact 13.6 million students, and 980,000 teachers in 25,000 schools."
Shortly after Obama announced his plans for Race to the Top, civil rights groups attacked the plan, saying that it didn't adequately benefit black and Latino students. Barnes considers that view to be shortsighted.
"Race to the Top was, indeed, a race to the top — it wasn't a race to the middle," she says. "And by that I mean we were setting a high bar. The other thing I would say is that while people have focused on Race to the Top and the $5 billion we've placed there, what they've focused on to a lesser extent is the $4 billion we've given to states and localities to turn around the 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the country.
"So we are walking and talking at the same time and trying to address those students that most desperately need assistance. I think you would be hard pressed to argue that [the billions we give to the lowest-performing schools] aren't significantly helping African Americans, Latinos and other students of color."
Barnes also notes that, whether or not states win the grants, just their attempts get the ball rolling on a host of improvements.
"[The grants] have been a catalyst to reform across the country that we think benefits students not just in the winning states but also students elsewhere," she says. "One of the reasons we focus on high goals for all students is because, in the past, in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, we've seen many states lower their standards. It doesn't do students any favors that you've lowered the standard and then told them that they are prepared to move on to the next grade or that they are prepared to go to college when they aren't."
College: Providing Opportunities and the Means to Pay for Them
President Obama has said that he wants the United States producing the most college graduates by 2020. To achieve that goal, he's attempting not only to prepare students for the work ahead of them but also to make it more accessible and affordable.
"For higher education, we've had this focus on not only access but also completion and college graduation," says Barnes.
Though many don't know it, included in the health care reconciliation bill was major higher-education reform that drastically changes the way students borrow money. Dubbed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, the law cuts down on the powers of private lenders and ramps up the government's direct-loan program. It also increases the number of federal Pell Grants offered to students.
"We added about $40 billion to the Pell program," says Barnes, "meaning we're now able to give about 820,000 additional Pell Grant awards, about 200,000 of which will go to African-American students."
Black student borrowers will also stand to benefit from Obama's income-based loan-repayment program. Starting in the year 2014, students who take out loans will have their loan payments capped at 10 percent of their discretionary income. Beyond that, any student who graduates and then goes into public service will have his or her loan completely forgiven after 10 years of payments. Barnes estimates that almost a quarter-million African Americans will be able to benefit from the program between 2014 and 2020.
Elsewhere in the reconciliation bill — and something that speaks directly to the administration's education goals — was increased funding for minority-serving institutions, which includes both historically black colleges and universities and predominantly black institutions. Currently, the minority-serving institutions are set to receive $850 million over 10 years.
"This is very important," says Barnes, "because HBCUs and primarily black institutions enroll about 60 percent of minority students who are going to college. We're making sure these institutions have stronger curriculums and better facilities to prepare the leaders of tomorrow."
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.