Although education remained a focal point during President Barack Obama’s State of Union address this year, no new policies or initiatives were announced during the January 28 address. Instead, the President placed education at the center of a broad strategy to bolster economic mobility and combat poverty—calling on Congress in his State of the Union speech to approve previously unveiled initiatives to expand preschool to more 4-year-olds, beef up job-training programs, and make post-secondary education more effective and accessible.
The address began with education, with the President referring to one teacher’s extra effort, which helped “lift America's graduation rate to its highest levels in more than three decades.” But, nothing substantially new “rose to the top” for K-12. In fact, he has given many of these policy priorities a nod in previous State of the Union speeches. But to date, a deeply divided Congress hasn't enabled him to bring any of the proposals over the legislative finish line. Obama made it clear he plans to use his executive muscle—and the power of the bully pulpit—to get moving on his agenda when he can't find bipartisan support for his wish list in Congress this year though.
"America does not stand still—and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do," he said.
Bypassing Congress is not a new strategy for the administration, which has pushed through sweeping K-12 policy without congressional approval. When movement on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stalled, the administration took matters into its own hands, offering more than 40 states waivers from the mandates of the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Early Childhood Education
Obama began with a renewed sales pitch—kicked off in last year’s State of the Union speech—for Congress to enact a major, early- childhood education initiative that would entice states to expand pre-kindergarten to more 4-year-olds, improve program quality, and bolster access to Head Start. Lawmakers have already put a down payment on that plan, funneling more than $1 billion in additional money to existing early-childhood education programs—primarily Head Start. But, so far, lawmakers have been much cooler to the core piece of Obama's early-childhood initiative—matching grants to help states begin expanding their own programs. In the meantime, Obama said he would pull together a coalition of business leaders, philanthropists, and elected officials to help expand pre-K for the neediest children.
"Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old," said Obama, whose education agenda in his second term has shifted away from K-12 toward prekindergarten and college affordability. "As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can't wait."
Common Core & RTTT Defense
Obama also used his speech to mount an indirect defense of the common-core standards and a more spirited, direct defense of the program that spurred states to adopt them: Race to the Top.
"Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it's worth it—and it's working," he said.
In addition, the President focused in on the need to bolster job-training programs, and to do more to help high schools and post-secondary institutions prepare students for in-demand careers, particularly in the STEM (science, math, engineering, and technology) fields—a theme he hit on in last year's address to Congress.
The administration already has sketched out a plan for bolstering connections among K-12 schools, post-secondary institutions, and employers in its 2012 blueprint for revising the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. But the proposal hasn't advanced very far on Capitol Hill yet. Lawmakers on the House education committee have just begun holding hearings on Perkins reauthorization.
And last year, lawmakers rejected Obama's plea to create a Race-to-the-Top style grant program to help high schools partner with businesses and non-profits to bolster their STEM offerings and career-training. Instead, the administration directed $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds to the initiative. It's unclear, however, if the program can last for more than a year without a new infusion of funds. Obama, however, used his speech to point out that this year, the awards will be made.
Obama also revived his push to help students and their families get a handle on the rising cost of college by making more information about different institutions available to prospective students, and tying up to $150 billion in federal financial aid to student outcomes, such as graduation rates. The president has also called for bolstering and expanding income-based loan repayment plans.
"We're shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education," he said. "We're offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt."
Obama additionally asked Congress to curb violence through new gun restrictions. Gun control proposals got a lot of play in last year's State of the Union speech, which was delivered in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. At the time, the Obama administration called for a ban on military-assault-style weapons and more stringent background checks for would-be gun buyers, as well as new resources for mental health in schools, and school safety. Congress ultimately rejected the gun-control measures, but provided some new resources in its recent spending bills for school-based programs. They include $75 million to the U.S. Department of Justice for a comprehensive school safety initiative, and $15 million for a mental health first-aid program in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say 'we are not afraid,' and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook," he said.
K-12 Policy Non-statements
The speech was also notable for what the president didn't mention. In past State of the Union addresses, the President pushed lawmakers to renew ESEA—but he didn't so much as mention the law in this speech. Many advocates suspect the administration has largely given up on renewing the law, for now.