WASHINGTON — Challenging civil rights organizations and teachers' unions that have criticized his education policies, President Barack Obama said Thursday that minority students have the most to gain from overhauling the nation's schools.
"We have an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind," Obama told the centennial convention of the National Urban League.
The Urban League has been a vocal critic of Obama's education policies, most notably the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" program that awards grants to states based on their plans for innovative education reforms. A report released earlier this week by eight civil rights groups, including the Urban League, says federal data shows that just 3 percent of the nation's black students and less than 1 percent of Latino students are affected by the first round of the administration's "Race to the Top" competition.
Obama pushed back Thursday, arguing that minority students are the ones who have been hurt the most by the status quo.
Obama's reforms have also drawn criticism from education advocates, including prominent teachers' unions like the American Federation of Teachers, who have argued that the reforms set unfair standards for teacher performance.
Obama said the goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers, but to create a culture of accountability. He pinned some of the criticism on a resistance to change.
"We get comfortable with the status quo even when the status quo isn't good," he said. "When you try to shake things up, sometimes people aren't happy."
Seeking to ease his strained relationship with the powerful teacher's unions, Obama hailed teachers as "the single most important factor in a classroom," calling for higher pay, better training and additional resources to help teachers succeed.
"Instead of a culture where we're always idolizing sports stars or celebrities, I want us to build a culture where we idolize the people who shape our children's future," Obama said.
The president laid the groundwork for what he called "an honest conversation" about education with comments on several recent developments that were designed as sweeteners for his mostly minority audience.
For instance, he said his goal with his domestic agenda, including the economy, health care and other priorities, is to create "an economy that lifts all Americans – not just some, but all." That comment earned him significant applause and pleased murmurs in the room.
The president also said he very much looks forward to signing a bill recently passed by Congress to reduce the disparities between mandatory crack and powder cocaine sentences. The matter has been a longtime thorn for the black community, as the quarter-century-old law that Congress changed has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to those, mainly whites, caught with the powder form of the drug.
"We got it done," Obama said. "It's the right thing to do."
And he forthrightly addressed the racial firestorm over the recent ouster of a black Agriculture Department official. He said the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod "marked both the challenges we face and the progress we've made."
"She deserves better than what happened last week," Obama said.
Associated Press White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.