President Barack Obama signs the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Executive Order in the Oval Office.

President Barack Obama signs the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Executive Order in the Oval Office. The White House

Obama’s black education initiative draws cheers, brickbats

Education Department to house new office to boost African-American achievement.

President Obama on Thursday signed an executive order launching a White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, to be housed in the Education Department. The election-year move was welcomed by leaders in the black community but criticized by conservative groups.

“In the less than 60 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision put America on a path toward equal educational opportunity, America's educational system has undergone a remarkable transformation,” Obama wrote. “However, substantial obstacles to equal educational opportunity still remain in America's educational system. African-Americans lack equal access to highly effective teachers and principals, safe schools, and challenging college-preparatory classes, and they disproportionately experience school discipline and referrals to special education.”

To help remedy such disparities, the initiative, consisting of an executive director, a President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans and an interagency working group, will aim for “increasing general understanding of the causes of the educational challenges faced by African-American students” and identifying evidence-based practices to improve education outcomes from preschool through college.

It will complement and reinforce past executive orders promoting historically black colleges and universities. Obama has named Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, chairman of the new commission.

Following a gathering at the White House, a group of black leaders welcomed the move. Ben Jealous, president of NAACP, said, “this initiative will help ensure ongoing progress toward that day when all students have equal access to educational excellence and no student can find examples of racism anywhere in their schools except chronicled in their history books.”

Criticism was leveled by Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, who told Government Executive, “it is a bad idea for the president to set up a new bureaucracy with a focus on one particular racial group, to the exclusion of all others.” He said Obama in the past has rejected policies that targeted one group for racial preferences, “but apparently election-year pressures to pander to his base have gotten too strong.”

Clegg said the executive order is “silent on the main reason for racial disparities in educational outcomes,” which he attributes to a high percentage of blacks born out of wedlock. That later leads, he said, to disproportionate behavioral problems in schools and greater tendency to commit crimes.