President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to press for action on several unfinished pieces of his agenda—including universal preschool and free community college for most students. The address also afforded him the opportunity to continue his push to expand student access to high-quality math, science, and technology courses, and promote training and recruitment of new educators. But, the address was not only forward looking with Obama touting his record on a few ed initiatives—including record high graduation rates and the passage of a long-stalled rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – the recently approved Every Student Succeeds Act.
The rewrite of the ESEA did link in some of the President’s priorities – early-childhood and STEM education being two areas. But, Congress didn’t push all of his proposals over the finish line.
“The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early-childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering,” the president said. “In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.”
The new law fails to embrace a number of the administration’s policy proposals—including teacher-evaluation through student outcomes and dramatic school turnarounds. But, it did codify the Preschool Development grant program (a $250 million down payment on Obama’s $75 billion ask) and resources to train teachers in STEM subjects.
Obama was quick to tout the national graduation rate, which has ticked up every year of his presidency to an all time high of 82 percent in the 2013-14 school year. What’s more, achievement gaps between historically disadvantaged groups of students and their peers have also gotten smaller since the 2010-11 school year. Obama may be especially proud of that progress, given that he pledged to help alleviate the dropout problem in his first speech back in 2009.
STEM & Tech
Obama zeroed in on computer science education several times in his speech. ESSA puts computer science on equal footing with math and English, allowing computer science teachers to access federal funds for professional development.
He also gave a shout-out to recent efforts to revamp the E-rate program (the Federal Communications Commission overhauled E-rate last year).
“We’ve protected an open internet, and taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online,” he said.
Unfortunately, the President’s big higher ed initiative – free community college for most students—hasn’t been embraced in Congress. But he made it clear he doesn’t want to see policymakers drop the ball.
“We have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red,” Obama said. “We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income. Now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”
Gun Violence, School Safety
In addition, Obama listed “protecting our children from gun violence” as an unfinished piece of business. There was an empty seat next to first lady Michelle Obama to honor the victims of gun violence.
It’s unclear if successors, particularly if that successor is from the opposing party, would pick up where Obama left off. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the GOP response to the speech, used education as an area to differentiate between the parties.
“If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt,” she said. “We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.”