President Barack Obama used his very last State of the Union address to press for action on unfinished pieces of his agenda—including universal prekindergarten and offering two years of free community college to most students—from Congress and his successor in the White House.
And Obama made it clear he wants to continue to fight to expand access to high-quality math, science, and technology courses, and the training and recruitment of good teachers. He also took a victory lap on a couple of his big K-12 initiatives—including record high graduation rates 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. But it fell short of lofty proposals he’s outlined in previous addresses to Congress.
“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, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering,” the president said. “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 forward 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 for work, in part through early implementation of ESSA.
The new law fails to embrace a host of the administration’s most-cherished policy proposals—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 ask) and resources to train teachers in STEM subjects.
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 also gotten smaller since the 2010-11 school year. Obama may be especially proud of that progress, given that he pledged to help alleviate the dropout problem in his very first speech to Congress in 2009.
Experts say, though, that it’s tough to tell exactly why graduation rates are up and whether or not 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, aka 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 science, technology, engineering, and math education or STEM’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 halfway 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.
And last December, Obama became “the first president to write a line of code” by participating in Code.org’s “Hour of Code” initiative. And during Computer Science Education Week last month, the White House gathered dozens of educators, programmers, and students for its first ever “Computer Science Tech Jam,” where participants discussed ways to bring computer science to more K-6 students.
ESSA also puts computer science on equal footing with math and English, allowing computer science teachers to access federal funds for professional development, for example.
On the technology front, Obama gave a shout-out to recent efforts to revamp the E-rate program.
The Federal Communications Commission—cheered on by the president—pushed through a major overhaul of the E-rate, which helps bring high-speed internet access to schools and libraries across the country. School leaders had complained for years that the program’s funding did not keep up with the demands of online testing and emerging technology.
“We’ve protected an open internet, and taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online,” he said.
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. Now, 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, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”
That line name-checked income-based repayment, a policy Obama expanded that helps keep borrowers’ payments steady relative to their incomes. And early in his term, the president signed legislation allowingmost students to borrow directly from the U.S. Treasury, instead of using subsidized lenders to do the job. The saving were funneled into the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students cover college costs.
Obama has also sought to simplify the financial aid process, by streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and by giving students information about how much aid they qualify for earlier on in the college-application process, and encouraging more low-income students to go after federal grants and loans.
Gun Violence, School Safety
Obama also listed “protecting our children from gun violence” as an unfinished piece of business.
At the State of the Union, 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.
“We are particularly appreciative of the president’s focus on mental health and getting people more access to care,” Sandy Hook Promise, an organization started by some Newtown families that pushes for new gun laws, said in response to Obama’s proposals. “Though mental illness rarely leads to violence, we know that people who lack mental wellness and coping skills can become violent towards themselves or others, and as a country we need to be more educated at recognizing the signs of at-risk behaviors and getting people help.”
When he unveiled those executive actions a week ago, Obama expressed his disappointment that despite his call in his 2013 State of the Union address for Congress to approve new gun-control measures, lawmakers declined to do so.
Last week, 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. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the GOP response to the speech, used education 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. John Kline, R-Minn., an author of ESSA, said in a statement that the new law scales back the federal role in education and puts more faith in local communities “and less faith in Washington. ... It’s time we applied the same approach to other pressing priorities,” including college affordability, he said.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who may be the next House education chairman after Kline’s retirement, 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.
Liana Loewus, Assistant Managing Editor and Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.