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How Will Education Play in the State of the Union?

By Alyson Klein — January 28, 2014 2 min read
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President Barack Obama is expected to use his State of the Union speech Tuesday night to try to pinpoint areas of potential agreement with Republicans in Congress—while making it clear he’s willing to exert executive authority and the power of the bully pulpit to push his priorities when lawmakers won’t cooperate. (That’s a theme he also hit last year.)

There have already been a couple of big test cases for this philosophy in education policy. When a divided Congress failed to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration issued a series of 42 waivers, giving states relief from many of the most onerous pieces of the law.

And there will be another opportunity for similar executive-muscle flexing if the administration decides to unveil new guidance pertaining to teacher quality and accountability later this year. The new rules could pertain to all states, whether or not they have waivers. (More here.)

Obama has also used his influence to further his education goals. For instance, back in 2010, his administration gave flve states that signed onto the Common Core State Standards an edge in the Race to the Top grant competition.

And more recently, the White House hosted a gathering of college presidents and other leaders in academia, who have made various new pledges or created new programs to benefit low-income students. (Many of those universities got the ball rolling before the feds ever got involved, so it’s hard to say just how much executive action mattered here.)

So where’s the speech going in terms of actual policy? We may not hear many (or any) brand new education proposals tonight. But advocates expect Obama to emphasize how previously released ideas would help combat poverty and income inequality across the country. That could mean a rehashing of the president’s proposal to entice states to dramatically expand preschool and tie federal college aid to student outcomes. (More here.)

Job training is also expected to get a turn in the spotlight, which could give Obama a chance to tout his administration’s program to bolster career education at the high school level and do more to foster partnerships among high schools, community colleges, and businesses. And the Obama administration’s plan to dramatically expand the e-rate program could also get a nod.

Any education-related guests? Yes. First lady Michelle Obama will host Kathy Hollowell-Makle, the 2013 Washington, D.C. Teacher of the Year, in her box at the State of the Union speech. She’ll also be sitting near Aliana Arzola-Piñero, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose “yummy eggplant lasanga rolls” took home a prize at the first lady’s Kids’ State Dinner. She’s also invited Cristian Avila of Phoenix, Ariz., who came to the United States as an undocumented minor, but has worked to pursue an education and a military career. (His presence might highlight the need to pass the DREAM act, which would give undocumented children a path to citizenship, if they pursue post-secondary education or join the military.) And the first lady will be hosting Sabrina Simone Jenkins of Charleston, S.C., a single mom who went back to college in her 40s and is now coping with $90,000 in student debt. Also in the box: Antoinette Tuff, a book keeper who prevented a school shooting at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Atlanta, by talking to the would-be perpetuator. Aso on hand: Joey Hudy, who brought a marshmellow cannon to the White House Science Fair.

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