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Five Things to Watch for in Trump’s State of the Union Speech

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 03, 2019 4 min read
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So the political climate surrounding this year’s State of the Union address is ... not awesome. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats have had a bruising fight about the recent 35-day government shutdown, and it’s possible another shutdown will hit after Feb. 15. So in this volatile environment, will Trump pay any attention to addressing K-12 education in his speech?

In his 2018 State of the Union speech, Trump barely mentioned education. He didn’t even talk about what’s supposed to be his favorite education policy: school choice. In fact, the last time a president’s State of the Union speech included less about education than Trump’s 2018 speech was in 1989. And Congress hasn’t really responded to what Trump’s asked for in the 2018 state of the union and his 2017 address to a joint session of Congress.

But maybe this year he’ll pay a little bit more attention to education? If so, here are a few of the things he might touch on.

1. School Safety. Some of the Trump administration’s most high-profile activity in education last year dealt with this issue, specifically after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. As part of their response, Trump and Congress agreed to boost the federal Title IV pot of cash, which schools can use to improve safety but also for a variety of other programs, from $400 million in fiscal 2018 to $1.2 billion in fiscal 2019. Trump might allude to this spending increase in his speech. He could also refer to his administration’s Federal Commission on School Safety report, or perhaps even its decision (partially in the name of creating safer school climates) to repeal Obama-era school discipline guidance.

On a related note, it’s also possible that Trump and members of Congress could host parents and others who have been affected by recent school shootings in Parkland, in Santa Fe, Texas, and elsewhere. For example, Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, has developed a relationship with Trump. And Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter Alaina at Stoneman Douglas, was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., when he ran for Broward County school board last year. (Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., announced that Pollack would be his guest at the speech.)

2. Immigration. The issue at the heart of the shutdown has an education angle, because potential deals to end the shutdown could impact the thousands of students and teachers who are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides protection from deportation for individuals brought to the U.S. illegally, under certain circumstances. Democrats generally want beefed-up protections, if not a path to citizenship, for DACA recipients, while Trump has tried to end the program, but also offered an extension of the program during shutdown negotiations last month. (So far the courts have taken a dim view of his attempts to halt the program.) It’ll be interesting to see if, or how, Trump discusses DACA in the context of the shutdown.

3. Career and Technical Education. If Trump wants to point to a clear policy win on education, he can cite the bill he signed last year that reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. It was written to grant districts and states more flexibility over how they design CTE programs. It had broad bipartisan approval. The business community wanted it done. Trump wanted it done. It got done. So is it worth one or two relatively straightforward lines in a speech?

4. Infrastructure. It seems like a big, loveable infrastructure bill has hovered around the hazy periphery of the Beltway’s blurred vision ever since Trump took office. Nearly a year ago, Trump released the general outlines of infrastructure spending plan, but it didn’t include targeted funding for schools. Meanwhile, the Democrats just released their own $100 billion infrastructure plan for schools. But it seems like the political climate in Washington is going to have to improve quite a bit before Trump and the Democrats can agree on a big infrastructure deal.

5. School Choice. Did you think we’d forget? Trump doesn’t have much to boast about when it comes to his attempts to expand school choice from Washington. He’s talked about choice less as time has gone on; while he issued a proclamation on Jan. 18 supporting National School Choice Week, he didn’t host any public events to highlight it at the White House or elsewhere. Congress has rejected his two budget proposals to repurpose federal aid to low-income students for public school choice, as well as the administration’s pitch to create a school choice grant program for states.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently said Congress should put the District of Columbia voucher program on a stable financial footing and expand the number of students it serves. Could Trump bring that up as a new twist on any school choice push his team might make?

Photo: President Donald Trump speaks to Congress. (Win McNamee/AP)

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