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Obama Sells Race to Top, Early-Childhood Education in State of the Union

By Alyson Klein — January 28, 2014 11 min read
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President Barack Obama placed education at the center of a broad strategy to bolster economic mobility and combat poverty—calling on Congress in his State of the Union speech to approve previously unveiled initiatives to expand preschool to more 4-year-olds, beef up job-training programs, and make post-secondary education more effective and accessible.

“Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old,” said Obama, whose education agenda in his second term has shifted away from K-12 toward prekindergarten and college affordability. “As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can’t wait.”

Obama used his speech to mount an indirect defense of the common-core standards and a more spirited, direct defense of the program that spurred states to adopt them: Race to the Top. This, too, from an administration that has been blamed for threatening the future of the Common Core State Standards by supporting them—and from a president who hasn’t talked much at all about Race to the Top in recent major speeches. He credits his Race to the Top competitive-grant program with helping raise standards—and performance (which many may argue it’s too soon to tell).

“Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it’s worth it—and it’s working,” he said.

In short, however, Obama proposed nothing substantially new for K-12. In fact, he has given many of these policy priorities a nod in previous State of the Union speeches. But so far, a deeply divided Congress hasn’t enabled him to bring any of the proposals over the legislative finish line. Obama made it clear he plans to use his executive muscle—and the power of the bully pulpit—to get moving on his agenda when he can’t find bipartisan support for his wish list in Congress.

“America does not stand still—and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

Bypassing Congress is not a new strategy for the administration, which has pushed through sweeping K-12 policy without congressional approval. When movement on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stalled, the administration took matters into its own hands, offering more than 40 states waivers from the mandates of the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

And the administration has said it may go further. The U.S. Department of Education is contemplating issuing new rules that could prod states to ensure that poor and minority children get access to as many high-quality teachers as their more-advantaged peers. The department promised a new “50-state strategy” would be launched in earnest by the end of January.

Early Childhood Education:

Obama renewed his sales pitch—kicked off in last year’s State-of the Union speech—for Congress to enact a major, early- childhood education initiative that would entice states to expand pre-kindergarten to more 4-year-olds, improve program quality, and bolster access to Head Start. Lawmakers have already put a down payment on that plan, funneling more than $1 billion in additional money to existing early-childhood education programs—primarily Head Start.

But, so far, lawmakers have been much cooler to the core piece of Obama’s early-childhood initiative—matching grants to help states begin expanding their own programs. The two top Democrats in Congress—Rep. George Miller of California, and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa—introduced legislation that would make much of the proposal a reality. But the legislation has attracted only a couple of Republican co-sponsors, in part because of its price tag: more than $30 billion over the first five years.

In the meantime, however, Obama said he would pull together a coalition of business leaders, philanthropists, and elected officials to help expand pre-K for the neediest children.

Job Training:

Obama gave a high-profile shout-out to the need to bolster job-training programs, and to do more to help high schools and post-secondary institutions prepare students for in-demand careers, particularly in the STEM (science, math, engineering, and technology) fields—a theme he hit on in last year’s address to Congress.

The administration already has sketched out a plan for bolstering connections among K-12 schools, post-secondary institutions, and employers in its 2012 blueprint for revising the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. But the proposal hasn’t advanced very far on Capitol Hill yet. Lawmakers on the House education committee have just begun holding hearings on Perkins reauthorization.

And last year, lawmakers rejected Obama’s plea to create a Race-to-the-Top style grant program to help high schools partner with businesses and non-profits to bolster their STEM offerings and career-training. Instead, the administration directed $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds to the initiative. It’s unclear, however, if the program can last for more than a year without a new infusion of funds. Obama, however, used his speech to point out that this year, the awards will be made. Yesterday was the deadline for schools to apply; however, earlier today the Department of Labor couldn’t say how many applied or what their timetable is for awards.

College Access:

Obama revived his push to help students and their families get a handle on the rising cost of college by making more information about different institutions available to prospective students, and tying up to $150 billion in federal financial aid to student outcomes, such as graduation rates. The president has also called for bolstering and expanding income-based loan repayment plans.

“We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education,” he said. “We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.”

So far, Congress hasn’t taken the administration up on those proposals—although college affordability has been a major theme in bipartisan hearings in both chambers on revising the Higher Education Act, which governs federal financial aid.

Education Technology:

One existing proposal that got a mention from the president wouldn’t require any action on the part of Congress: a plan to remake the E-rate, the federal program created in 1996 to support technology improvements in schools and libraries, particularly those in disadvantaged communities.

Last June, the president, echoing the views of technology advocates, said the program is not doing enough to meet schools’ burgeoning digital demands. He made a pitch for restructuring the program to ensure that 99 percent of the nation’s schools have access to high-speed broadband access within five years.

And in July, the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that oversees the E-rate, released a broadly worded proposal that reflected many of Obama’s goals. That blueprint called for improving schools’ overall connectivity, encouraging wise purchasing, and reducing the bureaucratic tangle schools face in applying for help through the program.

The FCC has not yet announced a firm timeline for releasing final rules on changes to the E-rate, though the commission’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, who was appointed by Obama, said in an online statement posted last week that he expected more specific details to emerge soon.

And in fact, according to the White House, in the coming weeks Obama plans to announce new philanthropic partnerships to advance this goal, including with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon.

School Safety:

Obama again asked Congress to curb violence through new gun restrictions.

“Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say ‘we are not afraid,’ and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook,” he said.

Gun control proposals got a lot of play in last year’s State of the Union speech, which was delivered in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. At the time, the Obama administration called for a ban on military-assault-style weapons and more stringent background checks for would-be gun buyers, as well as new resources for mental health in schools, and school safety.

Congress ultimately rejected the gun-control measures, but provided some new resources in its recent spending bills for school-based programs. They include $75 million to the U.S. Department of Justice for a comprehensive school safety initiative, and $15 million for a mental health first-aid program in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

K-12 policy:

The speech was also notable for what the president didn’t mention. In past State of the Union addresses, Obama has pushed lawmakers to renew the ESEA—but he didn’t so much as mention the law in this speech. Many advocates suspect the administration has largely given up on renewing the law, for now.

Reaction roundup:

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, called Obama’s speech a “10,” in a quick interview after the speech.

“He was absolutely right on preschool,” said Harkin. He said he plans to bring his preschool bill to the floor “soon, " but not before a bill to boost the minimum wage.

In the official Republican response to the speech, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., predictably had another take. She said, “We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school ... so college is affordable ... and skills training is modernized.”

Hours before the speech, Republicans on the Senate education committee released their own prescription for boosting equity in the nation’s schools: major expansion of school choice.

The lack of any mention of ESEA was what irked Rep. Todd Rokita, the Indiana Republican who chairs the House education subcommittee on K-12 policy.

In a statement, he said: “The President’s sincere and heartfelt commitment to education reform is always appreciated. Unfortunately, he failed to highlight the largest shortcoming in federal education policy today, and that is the need to reform and reauthorize No Child Left Behind. Last year the House passed the Student Success Act, a broad based reform of federal education policy that would maintain the high standards the President called for while giving state and local school districts back the money and authority they need to meet those standards. It is past time for the Senate to join us in this debate.”

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., however, is one lawmaker who thinks ESEA could actually get reauthorized this year.

In an interview after the speech, Andrews said that Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, really wants it to happen in what might be his last year at the helm of the panel.

Andrews is a senior member of the committee and could take over the top Democratic slot when Rep. George Miller retires after this Congress.

Is Andrews interested in the position? Of course, he said.

Perhaps one of the biggest question marks going into the speech was whether Obama would mention the common standards. Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute was one who wanted the president to stay far away from talking about the common core during his speech. So he wasn’t entirely happy with Obama’s remarks on Race to the Top raising expectations, and his mention of “curriculums.”

“I’m glad the president didn’t mention common core by name, and in alluding to it stressed the role of governors. But why, oh why, did his advisers think he should mention the need for stronger curricula?” he said.

But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in an interview after the speech, disagreed. “He was talking about raising standards. Raising standards is the right thing.”

For his part, Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, wasn’t disappointed by the lack of new education initiatives in the speech.

“I don’t think there ought to be new programs every year,” he said. "[The president] was saying ‘This is still a priority to me, you really need to push to make things happen.’”

Associate Editors Michele McNeil and Sean Cavanagh contributed to this story.

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen. --Larry Downing/Reuters