With the nation at war and in recession, education issues were sidelined at the State of the Union Address last week. But President Bush, when he briefly turned to the subject about midway through the 50-minute speech on Jan. 29, still offered support for boosting teacher quality and recruitment, improving early-childhood education, and expanding national-service programs.
As expected, terrorism and the economy dominated the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress. Mr. Bush noted that with the economy in recession, a “small and short-term” budget deficit would be included in his budget proposal, which was to be released Feb. 4. That, along with increased military spending, could squeeze funding for existing education programs and diminish any new proposals.
For educators, the speech was in sharp contrast to recent State of the Union speeches, going back to the Clinton administration, and to a similar address Mr. Bush gave to Congress last February, when education issues took the top bill.
This time, Mr. Bush devoted only a few sentences to education. He announced that he would continue to work with Congress to put new accountability measures in place, and would emphasis teacher recruitment and training. But the speech carried no specifics, or even a clear promise of new education initiatives.
“Good jobs begin with good schools, and here we’ve made a fine start,” the president said, alluding to the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “We must upgrade our teacher colleges and teacher training and launch a major recruiting drive with a great goal for America: a quality teacher in every classroom.”
The revised ESEA, or HR 1, known as the “No Child Left Behind” Act, requires states to have a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year. Faced with growing shortages in various regions and in certain subjects, many states are concerned about meeting that mandate. (“States Gear Up for New Federal Law,” Jan. 16, 2002.)
Mr. Bush did not offer details on what any proposal might entail, and Secretary of Education Rod Paige, in discussing the president’s remarks at a press briefing the next day, pointed instead to provisions of the ESEA that address the subjects listed in the speech.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is the ranking minority member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he was encouraged that Mr. Bush at least mentioned education, given the understandable focus on the simmering war on terrorism and the troubled economic situation.
“It’s clear he recognizes he can’t have successes in the job market and economy unless children receive a good education,” Mr. Miller said in an interview. “The key will be when we see his budget.”
The committee’s chairman, Rep. John A. Boehner, reiterated Mr. Bush’s pledge that the ESEA bill would be only the beginning of new efforts to improve schools.
“Education reform does not end with enactment of the education reform bill, it begins there,” the Ohio Republican said in a statement.
The focus on national security and economic issues “was to be expected,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Without a specific proposal, though, Mr. Kennedy is unsure what to make of the teacher-quality and early- childhood pitch the president made in the speech, the spokesman said.
“The devil’s in the details, and we don’t have any details,” Mr. Manley said.
Perhaps most noteworthy on the education front was what Mr. Bush did not address in last week’s speech.
The White House had hinted that the president might propose expansion of the Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to take tax credits for a wide range of public and private educational expenses. But the speech included no mention of education tax credits or anything else related to school choice.
Mr. Boehner and three other House Republicans had called on President Bush to expand the program in a Jan. 24 letter. Mr. Boehner hinted at a forthcoming proposal in his statement last week, saying: “We must work this year to expand education choice for low- income parents. All parents, regardless of income level, should be able to choose the best school possible for their children—public, private, religious, or charter.”
But Mr. Miller, the California Democrat, predicted that sucha plan would be a hard sell to Congress, given the budget deficit.
“He’s going to have a difficult time keeping pace with the agreed-upon figures in HR 1,” he said of Mr. Bush’s fiscal plans. “Losing money to private schools is not on anyone’s agenda right now.”
During the press briefing, Secretary Paige said that in the coming months, the Department of Education would take a closer look at what the federal government can do to improve early-childhood education. He said the department, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, was planning to form a task force to “see what the possibilities are.”
“How can federal dollars be leveraged best in order to improve early-childhood education?” he said. “There’s a lot we need to know about this.”
Mr. Paige said President Bush’s 2000 campaign proposal to move Head Start from Health and Human Services to the Education Department remains under discussion.
Early-childhood education has also been on the radar screen of key members of Congress, including Sen. Kennedy. First lady Laura Bush testified on the subject before his committee last month, and more hearings on early-childhood education are planned.
“We’ve all agreed to sit down and look over the research and talk again,” said Mr. Manley, the spokesman for Mr. Kennedy. He said the senator had not yet decided whether he would prefer simply to work to improve existing programs “or fashion an entirely new program.”
Reiterating a service theme sounded shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Bush also proposed creating 200,000 new positions in the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs, throwing those programs and the Peace Corps under the umbrella of a new USA Freedom Corps.
Mainly, the recruits would work on national-security issues, but those efforts could also include mentoring and teaching children whose families are affected by the war, such as those who have parents stationed abroad. Mr. Bush called on Americans to devote a total of at least 4,000 hours—or two years—of the rest of their lives to volunteer work, specifically recommending that people mentor the children of convicts.
Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have introduced legislation that would expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 participants over the next nine years and place a new emphasis on homeland security. Both senators applauded Mr. Bush’s interest.
“Now is the time to tap into the renewed national spirit by giving more Americans the opportunity to serve a cause beyond their own interests,” Sen. Bayh said in a statement.
Staff Writer Erik W. Robelen contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Education Only a Cameo In State of the Union