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Education Opinion

A SOTU Cheat Sheet

By Rick Hess — January 20, 2015 4 min read
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President Obama will deliver his State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight. This is one of those occasions when the talking heads try to read the tea leaves for what the year will bring. Especially given the natural appeal of education and the eagerness to find spots where bipartisan agreement is likely, CNN/FOX/MSNBC can sometimes misread those leaves when it comes to educational matters. Herewith, as a helpful cheat sheet, are a few thoughts on what to make of the president’s edu-remarks and the ensuing commotion.

The president’s “free community college” plan. Pundits will note that both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about the cost of college, the president’s Tennessee speech lauded an initiative by Republican governor Bill Haslam, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (chair of the Senate HELP Committee, which handles education) traveled for the speech. Some may suggest this means the plan has legs. Not so much. Alexander was being courteous. Republicans think Haslam’s plan is intriguing (partly because it’s pretty cheap, given that Pell Grants mostly cover the cost of college and that the program is restricted to high school grads). And Republicans know the president doesn’t actually think they’re eager for the federal government to take a lead role in determining the provision of community college—just as they’re fighting to dial back an overly aggressive federal role in K-12.

College report cards and “gainful employment.” The president may allude to one or both of these initiatives, albeit indirectly (probably as easy-to-embrace elements of the administration’s push to improve higher education). And it’s true that both are easy to like in theory. There’s agreement that students should have better information on colleges and that federal aid should be used in post-secondary institutions that actually add value. The trick, in both cases, is the enormous difficulty of building either report cards or a defensible accountability system with the crude tools at hand, no matter how smart and well-intentioned the effort. That’s where these efforts have gotten stuck, and why they’re not likely to get unstuck.

ESEA reauthorization. There’s a good chance that the president will point to reauthorization as a natural place for bipartisan accord. And he has a point. Two things to look for here. One is whether he tries to signal any bright line markers regarding testing, accountability, teacher evaluation, or whatnot. This matters because several of the key players in reauthorization are still very much trying to sort out one another’s non-negotiables (for instance, Secretary Duncan’s “bright lines” speech last week still has Republicans trying to determine just what lines the Secretary meant to convey). Strong markers in the SOTU may suggest either the shape of an ultimate compromise or that a deal will prove unobtainable. The second is what kind of language the president uses. Some NCLB hard-liners in the civil rights community have employed language suggesting that efforts to dial back the federal role are fueled by indifference to racial and socioeconomic inequities. However, to his credit, in an op-ed in this weekend’s Washington Post, Secretary Duncan made the case for a more assertive (e.g., invasive) federal role while taking care to acknowledge the decency and honorable motives of those who disagree. If the president opts to throw down the gauntlet, a workable agreement gets less likely; if he echoes Duncan’s tone, the odds of an agreement significantly increase.

More early childhood spending. The president will likely note that Democrats and Republicans all love early childhood education, in principle. He may reiterate his call for a national effort to expand early childhood. His calls will fall mostly on deaf ears, given that the Republican majorities in Congress are not seeking opportunities to raise taxes to fund new social programs. There’s still a possibility that one could see bipartisan interest in finding ways to increase federal support for early childhood. However, the deal-breaker on the right is likely to be federal efforts to quietly condition aid on the requirement that states adopt hundreds or thousands of intrusive federal “quality assurance” regulations. (My colleague Katharine Stevens had a much-discussed Wall Street Journal piece on this last month.) These are weeds the president won’t even hint at, but what’ll be telling is how prescriptive any supporting materials and administration talking points suggest they want the feds to be.

The Common Core. It’s a safe bet that the president will not be alluding to the Common Core. In a development that most Common Core advocates now regret, he has previously cheered federal encouragement for Common Core adoption in two earlier SOTU addresses. If, by some bizarre chance, the president does allude to the Common Core this time, it will not be appreciated by advocates (though I trust that the Pioneer Institute would be appreciative enough to send the White House a thank-you card).

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.