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How Will Education Play in the State of the Union Address?

By Alyson Klein — January 19, 2015 5 min read
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Congress is gearing up for its most serious attempt yet to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. So what will President Barack Obama say about revising the law in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night?

Maybe not very much. The White House has been slowly rolling out its State of the Union initiatives over the past week or so. And so far, it looks as if higher education and early-childhood programs will get the lion’s share of the edu-love in the speech.

Proposals on both ends of the education spectrum—early and higher—were part of a big tax package unveiled by the White House this weekend, from which K-12 policy was (almost) absent.

This seems to be a trend for the president, who has focused the education remarks in his last three addresses to Congress on either higher education (popular with young voters and their middle-aged parents) and early ed. (popular with just about everybody), while steering clear of K-12 (a politically stickier issue these days). In fact, he hasn’t called for Congress to renew NCLB in the State of the Union since 2011.

If Obama bucks that trend and does talk about K-12, he may hit on a recent student-privacy pitch or some of the proposals that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined in a recent speech. Those points include increasing money for Title I grants to help educate disadvantaged kids, directing more resources to teacher training, and yes, keeping annual assessments in place in any reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But higher education and early ed. seem like a sure thing, because both play a big role in the tax plan that’s slated to be a centerpiece of the address. The broader plan, unveiled over the weekend, would call for raising the top capital gains tax (which generally impacts investors), hiking the amount of inherited money that’s subject to taxes, and imposing new fees on financial institutions.

Using the savings freed up by those changes, the White House would expand some tax benefits directed at early childhood and higher education, and cover the cost of a new initiative to make two years of communtity college free. The community college plan is estimated to cost the feds about $60 billion over the next decade.

Republicans have already made it clear the proposal doesn’t seem like a serious one. “Hopefully the president’s address will also include some proposals that might actually have a chance to become law and help create jobs,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, in a statement.

Check back on the blog for coverage of the speech tonight. And follow us on Twitter (@PoliticsK12) for real-time updates.

More specifics on the policy:

On early childhood: The president is seeking to “streamline” child-care tax benefits, which are now offered through a hodgepodge of different programs, in favor of one single Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit of up to $3,000 per child. That would triple the amount of the current credit, now $1,000. The administration also wants to significantly boost income eligibility for the tax credit, to families that make up to $120,000. And it wants to offer an additional tax incentive for families with kids under five, who spend the most on child care.

The proposal already got a rave review from Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, who is thrilled to see that Obama is likely to bring up early ed. in the state of the union for the third year in a row.

On the higher education front: All-in-all, the president’s plan would offer students working toward a college degree up to $2,500 in federal assistance each year, for up to five years. It would seek to consolidate a bunch of smaller education tax breaks into one single program, the American Opportunity Tax Credit or AOTC. If that names sounds familiar, it’s because there’s already an existing AOTC and it’s set to expire in 2017. The White House plan would expand the program—and make it permanent. (Want more info? Great explainer from Inside Higher Education here.)

The administration is also seeking to make it easier for low-income students to take advantage of both Pell Grants and tax credits, by expanding the tax credit to students who are enrolled less than half-time, and exempting Pell Grants entirely from taxation. (Right now, just a portion of the grants is tax exempt.)

The plan would also make changes to savings account for higher education. Specifically, the President’s plan would roll back bigger tax cuts for 529 college savings plans put in place in 2001 and get rid of tax incentives going forward for Coverdell education savings accounts.

If you’re a fan of school choice, the Coverdell proposal is worth watching, since those savings accounts can help parents cover the cost not only of college, but also tuition at a private K-12 school, according to FinAid.

Other signs that higher eduction will be front-and-center: The president is planning two trips for the week after the State of the Union address, both to college campuses, namely Boise State University in Idaho and the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan.

And the White House has invited some higher-edy guests to the big speech, including Victor Fugate, from Butler, Mo., who benefitted from income-based student loan repayment, which the administration pushed for in its first term, and Chelsey Davis, from Knoxville, Tenn., who met the president when he unveiled his community college plan there earlier this month.

There will be some other edu-connected guests as well, however. They include: Malik Bryant, a 7th grader from Chicago, who wrote a letter to Santa that got rerouted to the White House, saying that all he wants for Christmas is a safe neighborhood; Ana Zamora, from Dallas, who has benefitted from the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, which allows students who came to the U.S. as children to remain here legally; Anthony Mendez, from New York City, a formerly homeless student became the first person in his family to graduate from high school; and Katrice Mubiru, a career and technical education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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