The Path Forward: Remarks by Thomas J. Donohue

U.S. Chamber Foundation and NAACP Partnership on The Path Forward: Improving Opportunities for African-American Students
Remarks by Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
December 10, 2015 | Washington, DC

As prepared for delivery

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On behalf of our Foundation, I’m pleased to welcome you to the Chamber.

I want to thank the NAACP and its president and CEO, Cornell Brooks, for partnering with us on this event.

What brings us together today is a civil rights issue, an economic issue, and at its core, an issue of American opportunity.

Education is the key to opportunity in this country.

We have many fine schools, staffed with the most dedicated and hardest-working teachers.

But no one can deny that from school to school, district to district, state to state, the quality of education differs vastly.

Our education system is a patchwork that is propelling some to success and consigning others to failure.

For those who slip through the cracks, their reach is limited, their potential is stifled, and their chances of living a life of struggle are greatly increased. 

This is a fundamental driver of inequality in our country. It’s unfair, it’s unjust, and it’s at odds with the American promise of equal opportunity for all.

Now, let’s be clear. We can never guarantee equality of outcome—nor should we want to. Even with uniformly good education, outcomes will vary.

Each of us is endowed with individual gifts and talents that will take us down different paths and allow us to achieve various levels of success.

But everyone should get a fair shot at living up to their own potential and defining success for themselves.

And the reality is we’ll never have equal opportunity for all without quality education for all.

The “for all” part is where we’re really dropping the ball today. As we’ll discuss over the course of this conference, this problem is particularly acute in the African-American community and in other minority groups.

Over the next two days, we’re going to explore the challenges … consider some reforms our system needs … and discuss how all of the stakeholders—especially business and civic leaders at the local level—can help lead the charge for change.

To help guide the discussion, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is releasing two new studies this week.

One focuses on academic achievement among African-American students.

The study reveals that even though their academic performance has improved over the past 25 years—especially by key indicators like high school graduation rates—the system is still badly failing many African-American students.

Today, only 18% of African-American 4th graders and 16% of 8th graders are proficient in reading. The numbers are little better for math.

Only one in 10 African-Americans who graduate from high school is actually college-ready in all four fundamental subjects of English, math, reading, and science.

And we’re seeing the grim effects of these education shortcomings in the 20% unemployment rate for young African-Americans.

The numbers can be discouraging, but the report also spotlights several company, state, and community based programs that are addressing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students.

We’ll hear specific examples of what’s working and discuss some best practices to follow in the first panel discussion.

The second study highlights two states and the District of Columbia, whose education systems were once lagging behind nationally but are now making big strides forward. 

The education improvements underway in Washington, D.C. are especially instructive—nearly 75% of its students are African-American.

Just 10 years ago, D.C. was one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country. Some called it a national disgrace.

But it has made some radical changes—a major shakeup in governance; tough-minded reforms including rigorous standards and strong accountability; and the creation of vibrant charter schools.

Now, anyone who has watched the process unfold knows that it hasn’t been a walk in the park. And the work is far from done.

But D.C. schools are starting to achieve results. Over the past 10 years, D.C. students have improved faster than those of any other state on national academic performance tests.

The achievement gap can be closed for all of our students. We should all take a close look at what’s working, and where

As these studies show, the most effective reforms will be led at the state and local levels. But the federal government has a role to play.

Just within the last few days, Congress finally stepped up and passed legislation to revamp the nation’s largest  K–12 education program.

The final bill was not perfect—it could have gone further on accountability. But it represents the spirit of compromise necessary to tackle a major challenge like education reform.

The bill strengthens our nation’s commitment to ensuring all students have access to a quality education.

And it balances the interests of those who rely on a well-educated workforce and believe in real accountability with those who want less federal control and more state and local flexibility.

Now with that flexibility comes responsibility. The law will only be effective if we work with the states to create strong accountability systems focused on academic achievement for all students.

If we see expectations being watered down … if the importance of academic performance is diminished … or if interventions are delayed for struggling students or groups, we must call it out.

We’ve got laws, ideas, and local examples to help us improve education for all students. What we need is leadership to drive it forward.

The Chamber, the NAACP, and our partners at the state and local levels can provide that leadership. We are key stakeholders.

For the business community’s part, we need more qualified workers in our labor force. If more of our schools can turn out more young adults who are well-educated and have the right skills, believe me—we will hire them!

The NAACP is a natural partner. Like the Chamber, it has national clout, a nationwide reach, and a rich history.

It is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the country, and it has been on the forefront of efforts to make education more accessible, diverse, and equal.  

Imagine what we can accomplish if we’re working together toward a common goal!

We hope each of you will join us.

As respected business and civic leaders, you can help lead the charge. You can be the agents of change. You can be the boots on the ground in your capitals and communities, and the voices in the ears of state lawmakers and school administrators.

You can help bring together local stakeholders and bridge differences.

This issue is too important to let disagreements divert progress. This challenge calls for compromise and collaboration. And that’s the spirit of this partnership.

Above all, let’s never forget what’s at stake:

It’s the hope of a bright future for any young person, no matter where she lives or what her background happens to be.

It’s the stability and prosperity of entire communities.

It’s the strength of our workforce and the competitiveness of our nation in a global economy.

And it’s the great American promise of equal opportunity for all.

We look forward to working with the NAACP on these and other challenges well into the future.

And now I’d like to turn things over to my friend and partner, Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP.