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Obama, Romney offer lessons in education reform

 

How do you level the playing field when it comes to public education in this country? It's a common question that has come up over and over at this year's national NAACP convention in Houston. 

The cause hits especially close to home for delegates, when you consider these numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics: In 2009, the average reading score of African-American fourth-graders was 26 points lower than Caucasian fourth-graders. White high school seniors scored 30 points higher in math than their black counterparts. 

There are many theories to explain the disparity in these numbers, but perhaps the biggest concern is economic status. Simply put, there are more underperforming schools in poor neighborhoods than middle-class areas. Thirty-seven percent of black school-age children come from households living below the poverty line, compared to 12 percent of white children.

President Obama has worked to expand educational opportunities for low-income students, using the American Recovery and Investment Act, to provide $13 billion in Title 1 funds for K-12 public school systems. Title 1 is part of the "Elementary and Secondary Education Act," passed by Congress in 1965. It provides financial assistance to local educational agencies and schools with high numbers of children from low-income families. National NAACP leaders, like Howard Johnson, tell Fox News they support this idea, only if the money is used to help turn around underperforming schools, instead of just sending kids away. 

"We're getting these minority students out of the bad schools and putting them over here (in an alternate school) and giving them an education," Johnson said. "So you get 10 out, but leave 100 in the same condition? Don’t move them. Fix it!"

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney discussed his plan for education reform, while addressing the NAACP convention delegates on Wednesday. "For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted," Romney said. 

His plan calls for a market-based approach to education, where schools essentially compete for students. Romney believes that will incentivize educators to get underperforming schools turned around instead of throwing money at the problem.

Fox News went to a Houston-area charter school and spoke to minority parents about the state of education in this country. They praise the idea of having options, which is what brought them to KIPP Charter Schools in the first place. Lisa Johnson says her two children are doing exceptionally well since switching to a charter. 

"They have learned so much and they want to go to school," Johnson said. "You know, my kids wake up with an 'I’m-ready-to-go attitude'." KIPP has 125 schools in 20 states, and serves more than 39,000 students. "Ninety percent of our kids are low income, but 90 percent of my eighth-graders have historically gone on to college," boasts Chris Gonzalez of KIPP. "I'm focused on college for every kid."

Ana Lucero Camacho-Duran tells Fox News college wouldn't have been an option for she and her siblings, had they attended her broken public school. "As a minority, living in a not-so-education-oriented neighborhood, you are not given many options," she says. "Breaking the cycle is important because you realize you have a choice. You have options. You’re able to go to a better school, provide a better education for yourself and for your future generations." Ana and all of her brothers and sisters are now college graduates.

But not everyone is convinced that changing schools is the answer. "If you have a school over here with kids getting scholarships and that school over there has nothing but drop-outs, the parents aren’t gonna want to send their children there," proclaims Howard Johnson of the NAACP. "There is no choice. Fix their school and then give them a choice."

Casey Stegall joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 2007 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Dallas bureau. He previously served as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.