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Obama and Comprehensive Educational Equity

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Published: 12/15/2008 12:42:00 PM

While on the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama pledged to revise and improve the quality of education in the United States. In July 2007, he announced a plan to address simultaneously the problems of poverty and education by creating twenty “promise neighborhoods” based on the model of the Harlem Children’s Zone. This announcement was a significant step in advancing the concept of comprehensive educational equity, i.e. the notion that to overcome the achievement gap, the broad needs of children from poverty backgrounds in areas like the health, nutrition, and early childhood education must be met.

The Harlem Children’s Zone Project (HCZ) is a bold attempt to address the broad issues associated with poverty and access to education. HCZ currently encompasses nearly 100 blocks of the Harlem section of Manhattan, serving 7,400 children and over 4,100 adults. Based on the premise that poverty and access to education opportunities are often correlated, the Harlem Children’s Zone provides integrated services ranging from parenting classes to health care services to nutritional programs to classrooms taught by highly qualified teachers. Afterschool programs, preschool programs, and community centers are also made available. A detailed account of the history and functioning of HCZ can be found in Paul Tough’s very readable new book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

“[I]nstead of helping some kids beat the odds,” Barack Obama stated in his 2007 statement, “…the Harlem Chidlren’s Zone is actually changing the odds altogether.” He continued, “It’s time to change the odds of neighborhoods all across America. And that’s why when I’m president, the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in twenty cities throughout the country.” Obama added that investing in education is a prime means for attacking poverty and promoting an educated population.

In addition to backing “promise neighborhoods,” Obama pledged to double the funding for federal afterschool programs, double the funding for charter schools, spend $10 billion a year on early childhood education, and institute a $500 million matching fund for classroom technology.

In his discussion of the comprehensive approach to educational opportunity last year, Obama stated that, “…we will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to… There’s no reason we should be spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to imprison one of these kids when they turn eighteen when we could be spending $3,500 to turn their lives around with this program. And to really put it in perspective, think of it this way. The Harlem Children’s Zone is saving a generation of children for $46 million a year. That’s about what the war in Iraq costs American taxpayers every four hours. So let’s invest this money. Let’s change the odds in urban American by focusing on what works.”

The President-elect has stated recently that he intends to keep the promises he made on education and other social policy issues during the campaign, although the initiation of some new programs may need to be deferred in light of the current economic crisis. It appears then that the question is not whether, but when, the Obama Administration will adopt a new, more comprehensive approach to ensuring educational opportunity for all children.

This article was published on, a project of the Campaign for Educational Equity, on December 13, 2008.