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(The Root) — In an action certainly aimed at energizing his Democratic base, President Obama will announce today that he is signing an executive order specifically intended to improve educational opportunities for African-American students.

The president will announce the order Wednesday evening at the National Urban League Conference in New Orleans. (Watch the live webcast at 7:30 p.m. EDT/6:30 p.m. CDT.)

According to a senior administration official, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans will be a part of the Department of Education and will work with the president and Cabinet-level agencies "to identify evidence-based best practices to improve African-American students' achievement in school and college." It will also build a network of people, grassroots organizations and communities to share those practices.

In addition, the executive order creates a presidential commission on educational advancement for African-American students, with commission members advising the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on broad-stroke strategies meant to enhance educational opportunities for black Americans of all ages.

A separate interagency working group will engage Cabinet agencies and senior officials at the White House in building programs "aimed at advancing outcomes for African Americans in early-childhood education; elementary, secondary and postsecondary education; career and technical education; and adult education," the administration official said.


"From allowing states to opt out of key No Child Left Behind provisions, introducing Race to the Top and releasing the Civil Rights Data Collection Report on educational disparities, President Obama continues to demonstrate the will to improve equity in education and access to college," remarked Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., a Howard University professor who is also contributing education editor for The Root.

"Hopefully, during his remarks at the NUL conference, President Obama will specifically address the problems in public education that were delineated in the Civil Rights Data Report [pdf]. Specifically, any federal program to improve educational opportunities for black students should address disproportionate suspensions and 'push out' of black pupils, resource equity and the absence of college-preparatory courses at public schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students."

Toldson also noted that 95.5 percent of black children in grades K-12 attend public schools and 4.5 percent attend private schools, "yet Louisiana, the state in which the president's remarks will be made, is diverting tens of millions of dollars from public to private schools in what is, in my opinion, a dangerous experiment with the privatization of education. Today we need the president to have the resolve to confront racial biases in education and make a commitment to all black people that they will have viable public-education options and universal access to institutions of higher education."


The president's panoramic initiative joins an existing White House plan — created during the Carter administration and fortified by an Obama executive order in February 2010 — to strengthen the nation's HBCUs, which have been under pressure because of states' budgetary woes and less money from the federal government. The nation's 105 HBCUs are responsible for about 40 percent of the nation's African-American science graduates, as well as significant numbers of judges, doctors and entrepreneurs.

In one bold stroke, the president has underscored his oft-stated seriousness about education reform — "a top priority of my administration," he said in February 2010 — and offered what is likely to be seen as a rebuke to those who have criticized his administration for failing to advance any White House agenda specific to the needs of African Americans.

The president's pending executive order carving out a new role for the Education Department counters the approach of his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who said in April that "[t]he Department of Education I will either consolidate with another agency or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller." Many on the right have opposed the agency, established under President Carter, almost from its inception in 1980.


Is the new White House initiative a blatantly political pitch to the African-American voters who were a bedrock of support for Obama in the 2008 election? If so, not without good reason: Black college students from HBCUs and other institutions were a big part of the ground game — from working caucuses to operating phone banks to canvassing neighborhoods — that helped Obama secure the presidency in 2008.

Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth, on the Obama 2008 campaign and presidency. He blogs on politics and national affairs at Short Sharp Shock.