Rising rates of anxiety and depression among children and teens should be a top concern for the nation, President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address.
The president emphasized schools’ role in supporting student mental health during his speech on Feb. 7 in Washington, which followed an announcement that the U.S. Department of Education will develop a $280 million grant program to help schools hire more mental health counselors.
“When millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma, we owe them greater access to mental health care at school,” Biden said.
The speech served as Biden’s opportunity to update the nation on what he sees as the most pressing issues for Americans—education ranking high among them. He called for teacher pay raises, free pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, improvements to school buildings, expanded career training, protections for LGBTQ youth, and a ban on assault weapons.
Biden’s focus on student mental health and well-being was reminiscent of last year’s speech, in which he called for $1 billion to help schools hire more mental health and student support professionals.
That funding didn’t come to fruition, but youth mental health remains a top priority in the president’s “Unity Agenda”—a four-part initiative he announced last year to gather bipartisan support on issues the president believes everybody can agree on.
The president pointed to the pandemic’s outsized impact on youth mental health. The number of children ages 3 to 17 diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent and the number of those diagnosed with depression grew by 27 percent from 2016 to 2020, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. Twenty-one percent more children were diagnosed with behavioral conduct problems in 2020 than a year earlier.
“Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and we were robbed of so much,” Biden said. “Today, COVID no longer controls our lives.”
In advance of Biden’s speech, the White House announced a number of steps to address children’s mental health:
- The White House directed the U.S. Department of Education to establish a $280 million grant program to increase the number of mental health care professionals in high-need districts and strengthen the school-based mental health professional pipeline.
- The Education Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will issue guidance and propose a rule to “remove red tape” so schools can more easily provide health care to students and bill Medicaid.
- The health and human services department will launch a Children and Youth Resilience Prize Challenge, awarding $750,000 to a pilot program that promotes resilience among young people.
- The president called for bipartisan support from Congress to ban online advertising targeted at young people and children and enact strong protections for youth and children’s privacy, health, and safety online. “We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit,” Biden said.
A push for support before and beyond K-12
The president used the speech to call for more funding to support preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and provide two years of community college for free for all students, initiatives that have become more popular at the state level in recent years.
Biden tried to include universal pre-kindergarten, in which all 4-year-olds would have access to publicly funded preschool, in his Build Back Better plan, which narrowly failed in Congress last March. The policy is gaining traction in local and state governments with more states establishing universal pre-K programs.
“Folks, we all know 12 years of education is not enough to win the economic competition for the 21st century,” Biden said. “If you want to have the best-educated workforce, let’s finish the job by providing access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.”
A group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wore crayons pinned to their clothes in an effort to bring awareness to “a child care crisis” in which families can’t find affordable child care options.
Biden also called on Congress to restore an expansion of the Child Tax Credit that was in effect for a year under the American Rescue Plan and provided support to families struggling to afford child care during the pandemic with monthly payments of $300 per child younger than 6 and $250 for each older child.
All students should also have exposure to career opportunities while in the K-12 system, Biden said.
“Let’s finish the job, connect students to career opportunities starting in high school and provide access to two years of community college, some of the best career training in America, in addition to being a pathway to a four-year degree,” he said. “Let’s offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not.”
Career education lately has been a top priority for the Biden administration. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called for investments in career and college preparation programs in a speech to educators last month. The Education Department also announced an initiative in November to expand access to career training programs and provide more career learning opportunities for students.
A few of the guests invited to watch the speech in the House gallery were educators or students who have connections to career and technical education, including Kate Foley, a 10th grader from Arlington Heights, Ill., who is studying computer-integrated manufacturing at Rolling Meadows High School and Cory Torppa, a construction, engineering design, and manufacturing teacher and CTE director at Kalama High School in Kalama, Wash.
A call for gun legislation and school safety
The president also touted the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which he signed last year. The law is the most comprehensive gun safety legislation in 30 years and provided $1 billion for schools to support student mental health and well-being.
Biden said Congress should take the work done in the law further by banning assault weapons. He also pushed for more resources to reduce violent crime, develop community intervention programs, and provide more investments in housing, education, and job training.
“All this can help prevent violence in the first place,” Biden said.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders teases ‘bold conservative education reform’
Newly inaugurated Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders leaned into fears of critical race theory and teased an education change package she plans to unveil in the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s address.
The governor made divisions over how schools should teach about race, gender, and sexuality a key part of her campaign in 2022. And on Jan. 10, Sanders released an executive order that prohibits “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”
Sanders said she will unveil a conservative education package for Arkansas on Feb. 8 that “empowers parents with real choices, improves literacy and career readiness, and helps put a good teacher in every classroom by increasing their starting salary from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the nation.”
“Here and across America, Republicans are working to end the policy of trapping kids in failing schools and sentencing them to a lifetime of poverty,” she said. “We will educate, not indoctrinate.”