President Barack Obama last night used his first congressional address to pledge to curb dropout rates, increase college-going rates, and fund programs that help close the achievement gap and improve teacher performance.
After successfully leading the charge for a $787 billion stimulus package that includes some $115 billion in education aid, Mr. Obama spotlighted education reform on the national stage, including it with energy and health care in a trio of critical issues that he says will shape the nation’s economic future.
In the nearly hourlong speech, the president reiterated his call that the massive infusion of money for education in the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act must come with reform. He renewed his campaign pledge for expanding the federal commitment to charter schools. He bemoaned high school dropout rates as too high, saying: “This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
As a response, he declared a new goal: By 2020, the United States will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. To that end, he reminded his audience for the nationally televised speech that the stimulus measure includes a new, $2,500 tax credit for college tuition. And he called for personal responsibility, challenging everyone to pursue at least one year of higher education or career training.
“Dropping out of high school is no longer an option,” President Obama said. “It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”
At the same time, he pledged, “we will end education programs that don’t work” as part of his budget plan for fiscal 2010, which he’ll unveil in the next few days. Congressional leaders are already eyeing Reading First and the District of Columbia voucher program for the chopping block.
The stimulus package, meanwhile, will provide “the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children’s progress,” Mr. Obama said.
Today, the administration gets to work on pumping out that stimulus money. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is now heading the implementation of the stimulus program, will be joined by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a meeting in Washington with state schools chiefs from around the country.
The ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, praised the president’s speech for its commitment to education, but he argued that congressional Democrats may stand in the way of school improvement.
“Democrats in Congress are attacking critical education reform initiatives like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, setting us backward in the drive to improve educational opportunities for students,” Rep. McKeon said in a statement.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered the official Republican response to the president’s speech, didn’t take issue with Mr. Obama’s education proposals, but he criticized the stimulus package as being “larded with wasteful spending.” Gov. Jindal also touted charter schools and a new voucher program for New Orleans that helps pay for private school tuition—and declared that it shouldn’t take a devastating storm like Hurricane Katrina to reinvent public schools.
President Obama, near the conclusion of his speech, singled out an 8th grader from Dillon, S.C., whose school—Martin Junior High School—has struck a chord with Mr. Obama. He had visited the school during a 2007 campaign stop, and found a building with peeling paint and walls that shake when trains go by. And he talked about the school in a press conference earlier this month in arguing for the value of federal stimulus aid for education.
According to the White House, after 8th grader Ty’Sheoma Bethea heard the president mention her school this month, she walked to the public library after school to gain access to a computer to compose a poignant letter to Congress asking for help.
Mr. Obama said last night: “She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, ‘We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.’ ”
The letter earned Ms. Bethea a seat in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama during the president’s speech in the House of Representatives’ chamber.