President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address included a pitch to offer “Dreamers"—undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors—a path to citizenship. And the president also gave a quick nod to the importance of vocational education.
But beyond that, there was virtually no mention of K-12 schools, including Trump’s favorite education policy: expanding school choice, which played a central role in his first joint speech to Congress in 2017.
In fact, there was less mention of education in this speech than any other similar presidential address since 1989, according to a review by the Education Week library.
The lack of emphasis on K-12 wasn’t surprising to Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. Trump is the first president since Ronald Reagan who doesn’t believe in using the federal government to champion a national standards and accountability movement—or much of anything else in K-12—beyond choice.
“The administration doesn’t really have a proactive agenda,” McGuinn said. “Most of what they seem to be doing is undoing what Obama did. And they seem content with that.”
In Trump’s Jan. 30 speech, K-12 didn’t even come up in instances where it might have helped the president garner bipartisan support for his ideas. For instance, Trump asked Democrats to join him in passing an infrastructure bill, without specifically asking for new resources for school construction—a priority for many in the education community.
‘Dreamers’ in Spotlight
Trump urged Congress to embrace his plan to create a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers—a big priority for Democrats—while at the same time placing serious new restrictions on legal immigration and providing funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.
“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities,” Trump said. “We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.”
He added, “Under our plan, those who meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States.”
Democrats haven’t rushed to embrace the president’s proposal, in part because many oppose its new restrictions on legal immigration.
The outcome of the standoff is critical for K-12 schools.
Last year, Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to remain here legally. But he allowed DACA to stay on the books until early March, giving Congress time to come up with a longer-term solution for the 800,000 recipients of that protection.
They include 9,000 teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And 250,000 schoolchildren have become DACA-eligible since Obama unveiled the program in 2012, according to the organization.
It’s unclear what will happen to those students and teachers if DACA is rescinded without a replacement. Some districts, including Los Angeles and Miami-Dade County, Fla., have said they’ll do everything they can to protect employees and students covered under DACA, if the program goes away.
Trump didn’t refer to the DACA recipients as “Dreamers” specifically in his speech. Instead, he said, “My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers, too.”
In the Gallery
For their part, Democrats filled the Capitol Hill galleries with Dreamers, whose future remains uncertain as Congress and the White House negotiate.
DACA recipient Diego de la Vega, who came to the United States from Ecuador 17 years ago when he was 7, attended the speech as a guest of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
Trump’s mentions of immigration did not give him hope.
“I think all of us [Dreamers] were hopeful that he was going to portray us in a lighter, more friendlier tone, but I believe he antagonized us and put us in the lines with gangs, and gangsters, and criminals,” he said. “And that was immediately followed by four pillars of legislation that I believe will be dead on arrival in Congress. ... But that’s nothing new for us. It’s been 17 years of repeated failures and attempts at the DREAM Act.”
Trump invited the parents of two teenagers from outside New York City murdered by gang members to sit in first lady Melania Trump’s box during the speech. The MS-13 gang members who killed Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens may have been brought to the country illegally as children, Trump seemed to suggest.
“Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors—and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school,” he said.
Trump called on lawmakers to act quickly on a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that the administration is likely to put out in coming weeks.
“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said. “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”
It’s not likely the Trump administration will make school construction a part of its proposal, which could involve state, local, and federal partnerships and private contributions. But any infrastructure push will likely need to garner at least some Democratic support to put it over the finish line.
Democrats are seeking some $100 billion for school construction in their own infrastructure plan, unveiled last spring. And more senators—including at least one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—urged Trump to consider partnering with states to modernize and repair schools.
Some conservatives though, argue that school construction should be beyond the scope of the federal government.
Staff Writer Evie Blad and Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Scant Mention of K-12 as Trump Gives Recap on State of the Union