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Breaking Down Obama's Big Education Speech This Morning

President Obama just delivered a major speech on education reform to the National Urban League—one of several civil rights group that, as I wrote last night, have been critical of key Obama reforms. The crowd at the Washington Convention Center welcomed Obama with a big cheer. And the president responded warmly but forcefully, devoting much of his hour-long remarks to defending the very programs the Urban League and other groups have disparaged.

Emphasizing many of the same points he’s used in previous education speeches, Obama told the crowd he supports good charter schools, although he realizes they are not a “magic bullet”; that he wants to hold teachers accountable, not punish them; that he supports standardized testing, but wants tests that don’t stifle classroom learning; that he wants to turn around the worst-performing schools, but include parents and the community in that ever-sensitive process.

Obama was particularly direct about Race to the Top, his signature program that awards competitive grants to states. Some critics say the program doesn’t do enough for, and could even hurt, minority students. Obama said that was “absolutely false.”

“Let me tell you, what’s not working for black kids … is the status quo," the president said. "What’s not working is what we’ve been doing for decades now.” Alluding to some recent congressional moves that would weaken the program, Obama said he would “fight for Race to the Top with everything I’ve got, including using a veto to prevent folks from watering it down.” (Earlier this month, lawmakers proposed slashing Race to the Top funds to pay for layoff prevention legislation, but that provision was ultimately stripped out of a war spending bill this week. Obama noted in his speech that he would keep backing efforts to find money to save teachers’ jobs.)

Obama's elevation of education reform may have been as interesting as his defense of it. He made clear he still sees it as the third pillar of a domestic agenda that includes health care and financial reform. And all three pillars, he suggested, are really part of a broader program for economic recovery. “I know some argue that, as we emerge from a recession, my administration should focus solely on economic issues,” Obama noted.

They said that during health care as though health care had nothing to do with economics. … Now, they’re saying it as we work on education issues. But education is an economic issue, if not the economic issue of our time. It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double for those who’ve gone to college.

Later, Obama added that, much like health care and financial reform, “fixing what’s broken in our education system isn’t easy. We won’t see changes overnight.” Even so, he said, he and his allies have to keep pushing: “None of this should be controversial. There should be a fuss if we weren’t doing these things.”

This much is clear: There’s still a lot of pushing to do on education policy. Not only have civil rights groups recently criticized him, but, this morning, The Washington Post ran an article about how his agenda—namely, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—is stalled in Congress. NCLB seems unlikely to come up this year, and its prospects after that, with possible Republican control of Congress, are uncertain. And that’s to say nothing of how states will act in the future. Will those that have agreed to legislative and other reforms (such as signing on to the common standards movement) in order to apply for Race to the Top deliver on their commitments? Will they make more changes that need to be made? And will those states that haven’t yet taken strides get in the game?

The president is right to get, and stay, fired up about education. Is it naïve to hope that others will, too?