- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 29, 2010

President Obama on Thursday defended his education policies before a skeptical audience at the National Urban League convention, calling his signature “Race to the Top” program the most “meaningful” initiative the nation has pursued in years.

Mr. Obama credited the $4 billion strategy with turning around failing schools across the country by providing federal grants to states that implement major education reforms. Race to the Top has drawn criticism from civil rights groups, who say it doesn’t do enough to help minority students.

“Lifting up quality of all our children — black, white, Hispanic — that is the central premise of Race to the Top,” Mr. Obama said.

He also sought to head off arguments that the program is too tough on teachers, as it calls for states to reward good performance but take sometimes drastic action to overhaul failing schools, including firing teachers.

“I am 110 percent behind our teachers, but all I’m asking in return — as a president, as a parent and as a citizen — is some measure of accountability,” Mr. Obama said. “Our goal is accountability. It’s to provide teachers with the support they need, to be as effective as they can be, and to create a better environment for teachers and students alike.”

The president also threatened to veto any attempt to water down his initiative, the controversy around which he said “reflects a general resistance to change.”

He also touted his administration’s record on higher education, pointing to the student loan overhaul that Congress tacked onto the health-care law.

In the speech, Mr. Obama addressed other race issues, including a vote by Congress to bring mandatory sentences for crack cocaine more into line with those for powder cocaine. He also cited the firing of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, saying that “many are to blame” for the misunderstanding.

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