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How Education Has Fared in Election-Year State of the Union Speeches

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 03, 2020 6 min read
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What could be more exciting than the Super Bowl? How about the prospect President Donald Trump will discuss K-12 education in his State of the Union address Tuesday?

Reportedly, Trump is going to push specifically for the Education Freedom Scholarships proposal that his administration released nearly a year ago.

“I’m grateful to the President for his strong support of this proposal from day one and look forward to Congress acting quickly on this bipartisan issue and putting students’ and their needs above all else,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement.

In last year’s State of the Union Trump declared that it was time for Congress to “pass school choice” although he didn’t elaborate on that. Just over three weeks after that speech, DeVos unveiled her Education Freedom Scolarships proposal. DeVos recently highlighted that the legislation for these tax-credit scholarships in Congress reached 100 cosponsors. But that proposal is still very far from reaching the president’s desk.

But how have presidents discussed education in their election-year SOTU speeches? We went back to the past five such speeches for answers.

Here’s one trend that stands out to us: Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama took positions on things like charter schools and content standards that seem pretty out of step with today’s Democratic Party and the 2020 presidential candidates. Trump, on the other hand, has taken a page out of President George W. Bush’s 2008 address.

Here are some highlights, with passages from each speech in block quotes from the transcripts.

President Bill Clinton in 2000

Clinton focused on shutting down low-performing schools, early education, and hiring more teachers in his final State of the Union. He also called for dramatically increasing the number of charter schools—the next Democratic president likely won’t do the same.

"[A]ll successful schools have followed the same proven formula: higher standards, more accountability, and extra help so children who need it can get it to reach those standards. I have sent Congress a reform plan based on that formula. It holds States and school districts accountable for progress and rewards them for results. Each year, our National Government invests more than $15 billion in our schools. It is time to support what works and stop supporting what doesn’t. ...

Let’s double our investment to help States and districts turn around their worst performing schools or shut them down. Let’s double our investments in after-school and summer school programs, which boost achievement and keep people off the streets and out of trouble. If we do this, we can give every single child in every failing school in America—everyone—the chance to meet high standards. ...

We know charter schools provide real public school choice. When I became President, there was just one independent public charter school in all America. Today, thanks to you, there are 1,700. I ask you now to help us meet our goal of 3,000 charter schools by next year.”

President George W. Bush in 2004

Bush focused on the successful passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which he signed in 2002, and also advanced coursework and increased federal aid to schools.

“All skills begin with the basics of reading and math, which are supposed to be learned in the early grades of our schools. Yet for too long, for too many children, those skills were never mastered.

By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, you have made the expectation of literacy the law of our country.

We’re providing more funding for our schools -- a 36 percent increase since 2001. We are requiring higher standards. We are regularly testing every child on the fundamentals. We are reporting results to parents and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing. We are making progress toward excellence for every child in America. ...

[T]onight I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century. This program will provide extra help to middle- and high-school students who fall behind in reading and math, expand Advanced Placement programs in low-income schools, invite math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time in our high schools.

I propose larger Pell Grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school.”

President George W. Bush in 2008

Bush was heading into the final year of his presidency. He praised the D.C. voucher program and said that too many children were being denied access to successful private schools.

“Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results. Last year, fourth and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores on record. Reading scores are on the rise. African American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs. Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for states and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, provide extra help for struggling schools.

Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America’s children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law. ...

I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

President Barack Obama in 2012

Obama, heading into his re-election bid, made an indirect reference to his support for the Common Core State Standards. He also invoked President Abraham Lincoln when talking about common ground he had with Republicans.

"[T]o prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier.

For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that’s happened in a generation.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making. ...

I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. That’s why my education reform offers more competition, and more control for schools and states. That’s why we’re getting rid of regulations that don’t work. That’s why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a government program.”

President Barack Obama in 2016

Obama mentioned No Child Left Behind with approval in his final State of the Union address, but didn’t spend a lot of time on education in his address.

“We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all and offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one. We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.”

Photo: President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

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