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Obama Makes Education a State of Union Centerpiece

By Alyson Klein — January 25, 2011 7 min read
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By Alyson Klein and Michele McNeil

President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to put education front-and-center on the national agenda, and on the agenda of the newly divided Congress. And he tied his education proposals, including the long-stalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, directly to the nation’s economic future.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said, alluding to the nation’s 1960s-era investment in research and education spurred by concerns after the launch of the Soviet space satellite.

While calling for a five-year federal spending freeze, the president—without giving budget specifics—also proposed spending more on education as part of a campaign to “win the future.”

“Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine,” Obama said. “It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”

Obama called for a new bipartisanship and civility in Washington, and education is one of the few areas where there is the potential for bipartisan cooperation. He did not propose any new initiatives for revising the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, he reiterated his commitment to changing it.

Hewing closely to the ESEA blueprint he released last March, the president framed the law’s renewal as an attempt to build on the success of his signature, $4 billion Race to the Top competition and to find the right role for the federal government in education, while at the same time raising expectations for students and schools. That blueprint proposed replacing the law’s main yardstick—Adequate Yearly Progress—with a new one aimed at measuring whether students are ready for college or a career. And it proposed moving to a growth model, where schools get credit for improving individual students’ progress.

“And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids,” he said, which elicited applause in the chamber.

“Race to the Top,” he said, “is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”

Obama also announced an initiative to train 100,000 new teachers in mathematics, science, technology, and engineering, or STEM subjects. He plans to expand “promising and effective teacher preparation models” for STEM teachers.

In fact, some of his statements about the teaching profession, including his proclamation that the country must “reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones,” drew strong applause.

Last year’s effort to reauthorize the ESEA was overshadowed by other domestic priorities, including the health care overhaul law. The chairman and ranking members on the committees and subcommittees overseeing education policy—the so-called “Big 8"—met regularly with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. House and Senate education committees each held hearings on the blueprint, but neither chamber released a bill. Still, discussions continued at the staff level, particularly in the House, throughout the summer and fall.

The president’s budget will call for a “bold restructuring” of federal education funding, White House aides said in advance of the speech. That sounds similar to the changes the president proposed for K-12 in the still-pending fiscal 2011 budget, which sought to combine smaller programs into broader funding streams. But Congress didn’t take the administration up on those suggestions.

Obama also called on Congress to revamp immigration laws so that high-performing students who came to the United States illegally as children can work toward citizenship, and talented foreign students who come here to pursue higher education are able to stay and contribute to the economy.

He said he wants to see a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill this year that includes what’s known as the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented students who pursue higher education or the join the military.

But the DREAM Act faces long odds in Congress; it failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate last year, even though there were more Democrats in the chamber at that time. And it’s going to be especially tough this year in the much-more conservative House of Representatives, now controlled by Republicans.

This isn’t the first time the president has asked Congress to reauthorize the ESEA. In last year’s speech, he called for an additional $4 billion in federal spending on K-12 education along with reauthorization.

As is customary for presidents in this annual speech, Obama trumpeted last year’s successes. Among them: the 11 states plus the District of Columbia that won the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which pitted states against each other to propose bold education-reform plans, with significant buy-in from local districts. The administration is seeking money from Congress to extend the program for an additional year.

And with the Obama administration prodding them along, all but seven states have now signed on to create common academic standards for all students—another move that the president touted in his speech.

Obama also highlighted a key education provision in the controversial health-care overhaul legislation—one that eliminated private lenders as the middleman in federally subsidized student loans. The savings, which could be up to $67 billion according to one congressional estimate, are to be reinvested in the Pell Grant program to fund more financial aid for college students.

He also asked lawmakers to make permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can provide up to $10,000 for four years of college.

In a sign of how important education would be in the speech, first lady Michelle Obama’s box was filled with students who personify the issues Obama talked about. Among them: a community college student who created a fully adjustable motorized chair for disabled people; a middle schooler who designed a solar car; and a 16-year-old who developed an emerging cancer treatment that uses light energy to activate a drug that kills cancer cells.

Reaction to Obama’s speech from inside and outside of the Capitol was generally positive, sprinkled with some constructive criticism.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the Senate’s K-12 policy subcommittee and one of the chamber’s experts on K-12, told Education Week that reauthorizing ESEA “is an area where we can be bipartisan,” adding he’s “hopeful” for its passage.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, agreed. Education is one area where lawmakers can “learn to flex their bipartisan muscles,” he said, adding that he expected a “bunch of good ideas” as policymakers debate the next iteration of ESEA.

Obama’s emphasis on Race to the Top did not escape the notice of lawmakers from rural parts of the country.

Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican from South Dakota, said she thinks Race to the Top is a good program but difficult for a rural state like hers to compete in. And she called the administration’s ESEA blueprint “good, but very nonspecific. I’m a person who likes specifics. But it was a good starting point.”

Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, pointed out that Obama spent little time talking about how the NCLB law would be altered.

“All he did was talk about making it like Race to the Top. He’s going to have a heck of a lot of trouble with that,” Jennings said, adding that many members of Congress, plus major educational organizations, see shortcomings in the competitive program that created winners and losers among states.

In an interview the day before the speech, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said that he thinks there is the potential for a bipartisan reauthorization this year, particularly with the president’s sustained support.

“I expect that he will be speaking out and directly involved in this process,” Miller said. “It ain’t gonna happen without him.” And he said there is a growing bipartisan consensus that the NCLB law is “rapidly becoming outdated. ... It’s no longer a match with where schools and [districts] want to go in terms of raising standards.” He said that mismatch is “leading to some odd results,” where schools that are making progress with individual students are still being labeled as failures.

Reporter Catherine Gewertz contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP

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