Published Online: January 31, 2014
Published in Print: February 5, 2014, as Obama Aims to Move Ball on K-12 Goals

Obama Uses Address to Push K-12 Agenda

President Barack Obama addressed prekindergarten, college affordability, technology, and other key education priorities in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. But he steered clear of new K-12 initiatives. The president is expected to lean heavily on his executive authority in pressing his education agenda in the coming year.
—Larry Downing/Reuters

President Barack Obama announced no new education initiatives in this year's State of the Union address, telegraphing that his administration's K-12 agenda is set and that the focus has turned to implementing White House-driven initiatives now entering their final phase.

In his fifth annual address to Congress last week, Mr. Obama placed education at the center of a broad strategy to bolster economic mobility and combat poverty—calling on lawmakers to approve previously unveiled proposals to expand preschool to more 4-year-olds, beef up job-training programs, and make postsecondary education more effective and accessible.

In short, he proposed nothing substantially new for K-12 education policy in general.

For U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, that means focusing on helping states implement new, higher standards, monitoring No Child Left Behind Act waivers granted under the Obama administration's authority, and finding a variety of ways to help expand pre-K.

"So much of this stuff is around execution. It's around implementation," Mr. Duncan said in a later briefing with reporters.

Education and the State of the Union

President Barack Obama used his fifth annual address to Congress to offer a broad strategy to bolster economic mobility and combat poverty. Education themes played a central role.

Early-Childhood Education

"Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. ... We'll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a Race to the Top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."

Internet Access in Schools

"Last year, I also pledged to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we've got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit."

Race to the Top, Standards, and Testing

"Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. ... 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."

College Access and Affordability

"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. 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."

School Safety

"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."

High School Improvement and Worker Training

"We're working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career."

Mr. Obama made it clear in his Jan. 28 speech that he plans to use his executive muscle—and the power of the bully pulpit—to get key parts of his broad domestic-policy agenda moving when he can't find bipartisan support for his wish list in Congress.

"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.

Teacher-Quality Effort

Bypassing Congress on K-12 policy is not a new strategy for the administration. When reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stalled, the administration in 2011 took matters into its own hands, offering more than 40 states waivers from the mandates of the current version of the law, the NCLB Act.

And the U.S. Department of Education is working on a 50-state strategy to prod states to ensure that poor and minority children get access to as many high-quality teachers as their more-advantaged peers.

In the area of school technology, the department also is working on policy guidance advising states and districts about all the ways they can use existing money to buy devices and learn to use them. (Mr. Obama in his speech talked about his administration's efforts to remake E-rate, the federal program created in 1996 to support technology improvements in schools and libraries, particularly those in disadvantaged communities.)

Mr. Duncan also said that if Congress doesn't fund a pre-K expansion, he will try to get major foundations and philanthropists to fill the void.

"Can we do some really creative partnerships?" Mr. Duncan said in his Jan. 30 briefing with reporters.

Mr. Obama renewed his pitch from last year's address for Congress to enact a major, early-childhood initiative that would entice states to expand pre-K to more 4-year-olds, improve program quality, and bolster access to Head Start, the federal program for disadvantaged preschoolers. Lawmakers funneled more than $1 billion in new aid into existing early-education programs, primarily Head Start. But they have been much cooler to Mr. Obama's proposal for matching grants to help states expand their own programs, which could cost $30 billion in the first five years.

Still, if there is one area where Congress might move, it could be preschool.

"I really want to get it done," said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, during a Jan. 29 Capitol Hill briefing with reporters. He listed expanding early education as one of his three top priorities before he retires this year. Meanwhile, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has planned a Feb. 5 hearing on early education.

Defending Common Core?

Mr. Obama's State of the Union speech touched on a host of other K-12 issues as well, from a general call to reduce gun violence in the wake of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School to a significant need to make college more affordable.

He also mounted an indirect defense of the Common Core State Standards and a more spirited, direct defense of the program that spurred states to adopt them: Race to the Top. His administration has come under fire for threatening the future of the common core by supporting it. Mr. Obama credited the Race to the Top competitive grants with helping to boost academic standards in general—and performance.

"Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. … 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.

Mr. Obama's speech was also notable for what the president didn't mention. In past State of the Union addresses, he has pushed lawmakers to renew the ESEA—but he didn't so much as mention the law in this year's speech. Many advocates suspect the administration has largely given up on renewing it, for now.

After the president's address, Mr. Duncan tacitly acknowledged his team isn't working at full speed on reauthorization given the reluctance to do so in Congress.

But, he said, "I don't think it's a given" that reauthorization won't pass during the president's final term. "We could go into high gear literally overnight."

Republican Reaction

Reaction to Mr. Obama's speech fell along predictable partisan lines, with Republicans arguing, in particular, that he should be pushing school choice as a means to boost student achievement.

In the official GOP response, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said, "We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school, ... so college is affordable, ... and skills training is modernized."

But it was the lack of any mention of the ESEA in the State of the Union address that irked Rep. Todd Rokita, the Indiana Republican who chairs the House education subcommittee on K-12 policy.

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In a statement, he said: "Unfortunately, [the president] failed to highlight the largest shortcoming in federal education policy today, and that is the need to reform and reauthorize No Child Left Behind. Last year, the House passed the Student Success Act, a broad-based reform of federal education policy that would maintain the high standards the president called for while giving state and local school districts back the money and authority they need to meet those standards."

For his part, Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3 million-member National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, wasn't disappointed by the lack of new education initiatives.

"I don't think there ought to be new programs every year," he said in an interview. "[The president] was saying, '[Education] is still a priority to me, you really need to push to make things happen.' "

Vol. 33, Issue 20, Pages 16,21

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