President Barack Obama may be in the home stretch of his presidency, but says he’ll continue to press Congress and his successor on unfinished pieces of his education agenda, including universal pre-K and offering two years of free community college to most students.
And, in his final State of the Union address last week, Obama made it clear he will fight to expand access to high-quality science, technology, engineering, and math courses, and the training and recruitment of good teachers.
The president also took a victory lap on a couple of his big K-12 priorities—including a record-high graduation rate and the passage of a long-stalled rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The recently approved Every Student Succeeds Act, a rewrite of the ESEA, made inroads on some of Obama’s most cherished priorities, including on early-childhood programs and mathematics and science education.
“The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early-childhood education, lifted high schoolto new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering,” the president said in his Jan. 12 speech to Congress. “In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.”
It will likely be up to the next administration to move ahead on those initiatives. And some of those policies have been embraced by Democratic presidential contenders, particularly when it comes to early-childhood education and higher education. For its part, the Obama administration will likely spend the next year setting the stage, in part through implementation of ESSA.
The new law fails to embrace a host of other administration priorities, including teacher-evaluation through student outcomes and dramatic school turnarounds.
But it enshrines a couple of programs that borrow ideas from the administration’s past State of the Union proposals, including the Preschool Development grant program (a $250 million down payment on Obama’s $75 billion proposal for near-universal prekindergarten) and resources to train.
In his speech, Obama also touted the national graduation rate, which has ticked up every year of his presidency to an all-time high of 82 percent for the 2013-14 school year. What’s more, achievement gaps between historically disadvantaged groups of students and their peers have gotten smaller since the 2010-11 school year.
Experts say, though, that it’s tough to tell exactly why graduation rates are up and whether Obama’s policies played a role. And some are concerned that the rising graduation rate on its own doesn’t show whether an increasing share of students are exiting high school truly ready for higher education or the workforce.
Obama did not mention that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card,” have fallen for the first time in two decades.
Obama hit computer science education a couple times in his speech, kicking it off by saying he wants students to learn how to “write computer code.”
This wasn’t STEM education’s first appearance in the State of the Union. The president has been championing STEM for several years, most recently with an eye toward ramping up accessibility to computer science.
For instance, in his 2011 State of the Union speech, the president called for the recruitment of 100,000 new STEM teachers over a decade—an effort he says is half complete. He has also been lobbying for a STEM master teacher corps—an idea that was authorized for federal funding under the new Every Student Succeeds Act.
Obama’s big higher education ask in last year’s State of the Union speech—free community college for most students—hasn’t been embraced in Congress. But he made it clear he doesn’t want to see policymakers drop the ball.
“We have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red,” Obama said. “We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income.”
That line alludes to income-based repayment, a policy Obama expanded that helps keep borrowers’ payments steady relative to their incomes.
He went on to say, “we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that.”
Gun Violence, School Safety
Obama also listed “protecting our children from gun violence” as an item still pending on his agenda.
At the address, there was an empty seat next to first lady Michelle Obama to honor the victims of gun violence. When the president unveiled new gun-control measures through executive actions earlier this month, the parents of the victims of the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., praised his plans.
And earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education also issued guidance to educators designed to help them ensure that Muslim, Arab, and refugee students don’t experience harassment or discrimination based on their race, religion, or national origin.
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
It’s unclear if a Republican successor would pick up where Obama left off on education. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the GOP response to the speech, used K-12 policy as an area to differentiate between the parties.
“If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt,” she said. “We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.” And Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who may be the next House education chairman when Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. retires, after this congressional term, doesn’t expect Obama’s unfinished business to get any traction.
“His proposals are going nowhere,” she said in an interview. But she’s pleased the president signed ESSA, given its emphasis on local control.
Assistant editors Liana Heitin and Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this post.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as In Home Stretch, Obama Vows to Push On Education Priorities