WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has announced he would form a bipartisan commission to examine educational equity and promised to pursue federal policies that would advance equity in the nation's K-12 schools.
In a speech at the conference marking the 100th anniversary of the National Urban League, Duncan told civil rights leaders that the Obama administration's school reform agenda is benefiting students of color and those growing up in poverty through the Race to the Top program, the Promise Neighborhoods program, and other competitive programs, as well as maintaining formula programs focused on low-income children.
"In so many ways, our reform agenda is all about equity," he said. "Competition isn't about winners and losers. It's about getting better."
He said he was open to discussing criticisms of the administration's education agenda and promised to remain "deeply engaged" with civil rights leaders to address their concerns about school reform.
"You are partners and allies in the cause of public education," Duncan said. "This is a movement. This is the civil rights issue of our time."
To address fiscal inequities in K-12 schools, Duncan said the Department of Education is establishing the Equity and Excellence Commission. The 15-member panel will obtain broad public input about inequities in K-12 education and examine how those inequities contribute to the achievement gap. The panel will submit recommendations to Duncan on how to address those inequities.
Next week, the Department will publish a notice in the Federal Register asking for nominations for the commission, which was called for by Congress in the fiscal year 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act, with the leadership of Representatives Chaka Fattah and Michael Honda.
In addition to the equity commission, Duncan promised to fight so that more than $14 billion in the Title I program is advancing equity within school districts by providing effective teachers and other vital resources for students who need them most.
Title I funds are intended to reduce inequity by providing additional dollars to schools serving low-income children. But under current law, districts can hide inequities in state and local spending between poorer schools and wealthier schools because they only have to show average salaries of teachers - not actual salaries.
"If we change the law and require schools to distribute resources more equitably, schools serving low-income students will have more money and better teachers," Duncan said. "That money can buy more support for students and teachers, higher pay for great teachers willing to work in low-income schools, and breakthrough technology to advance learning."
Duncan said he would work with Congress to fix this provision, known as comparability, in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In addition, Duncan highlighted many of the Obama administration's accomplishments that will benefit low-income and minority students. The administration has invested more than $40 billion in Pell grants to help low-income students pay for college and another $2 billion for community colleges, which serve a disproportionate share of low-income and minority students.
Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali, the Office for Civil Rights is launching compliance reviews and investigations around the country to expose inequities in disciplinary actions against African-American males, access to a rigorous curriculum, safety, and sexual violence.
"We will ensure that all schools -- public, private and charter -- serve the kids most in need," Duncan said. "That is also something you told us was important. We heard you loud and clear, we are responding and these schools will be held accountable."