Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Recap: What’s Obama’s State of the Union Edu-Record?

By Alyson Klein — January 12, 2016 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

President Barack Obama will give his very last State of the Union address Tuesday night. And it’s supposed to be a non-traditional version of the speech. Instead of making a whole bunch of asks to Congress to set the tone for the legislative year and budget process, he’ll highlight some of his administration’s successes over the past seven years.

For instance, he may tout the national graduation rate, which is at an all-time high of 82 percent, with gaps closing between historically underserved groups of students and their peers in many places. (He probably will not mention that scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress fell on his watch for the first time in two decades. More here.)

The president might also give some sort of a shout-out to computer science education, as well as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. (There are a couple of guests with connections to STEM sitting in Mrs. Obama’s box, including Jennifer Bragdon, a community college student from Texas who wants to become a middle school math teacher and Lydia Doza, a college student and STEM advocate.)

And he could take a victory lap on two major K-12 initiatives of the last two years: passage of a bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the Every Student Succeeds Act) and the recent e-rate overhaul.

After the speech, cabinet officials will head out to talk about broad themes the president touched on. Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, for instance, will go to El Paso, Texas, to talk about ESSA and equity.

But we probably won’t be dissecting and analyzing any new major policy proposals, as we have in past years.

So, since we’re nearing the end of his tenure, what have Obama’s past State of the Union asks been? And which ones actually came to fruition? (We looked at this a couple years ago too, here.)

Here’s the president’s latest State of Union scorecard:


The Ask: Obama made his most high-profile pitch for a very costly initiative: Making the first two years of community college free for most students. And he called for tripling the child care tax credit. Meanwhile, he didn’t say word one about a reauthorization of ESEA that was starting to move in Congress (and kicked off with a debate over standardized testing).

Did it happen? Nope. The childcare proposal hasn’t made it over the finish line. Neither has the community college plan, although we haven’t heard the last of the free college debate. All three Democratic presidential contenders want to seriously scale back college costs. If one of them wins and gets this done, Obama can take credit for helping to start the conversation. Meanwhile, ESEA reauthorization is now a reality. Obama scored a couple wins in ESSA, but there are also plenty of things about the new law that don’t match the administration’s initial vision. More on that below.


The Ask: This was a rehash year. Obama reiterated his 2013 State of the Union proposals, calling on Congress to act on 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.

Did it happen? Not really. Obama got a limited version of his preschool plan, $250 million in Preschool Development Grants to help states expand and improve early-childhood education. That’s been in a few different spending bills, plus it’s now enshrined in law through ESSA (even if it is missing some key quality requirements the administration liked). The college access and job-training proposals haven’t come to fruition, although both topics have been hot on the presidential campaign.


The Ask: Obama proposed a broad expansion of preschool but didn’t explain how he’d pay for it. (The answer, a new tax on tobacco products, came later, in the administration’s budget proposal.) He also championed a Race to the Top-style competition for science and math at the high school level.

Did it happen? Mixed bag here. The broad preschool proposal was never enacted, which was no surprise, given its $75 billion pricetag. But there was a consolation prize: The Preschool Development Grants mentioned above. And Congress refused to fund the new high school competition, so the administration went digging in its couch cushions and coughed up $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds for at least one round of the competition.


The Ask: Obama urged Congress to tie federal college aid in part to student outcomes, such as graduation rates for at-risk student populations. And he proposed a big, undefined competitive-grant program to improve the teaching profession.

Did it happen? Mixed bag again. Ensuring students get more bang for their buck has been a theme as lawmakers examine the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but neither the House or Senate has considered a bill that would actually enact Obama’s proposal. Plus, no one is expecting an HEA rewrite to get done on Obama’s watch at this point. And Congress hasn’t funded the competitive-grant program for teaching in exactly the way Obama wanted, but there is a reworked version of the Teacher Incentive Fund in ESSA.


The Ask: Obama asked Congress to pass a bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA that closely mirrored his blueprint for rewriting the law. He also announced an initiative to train 100,000 teachers in STEM subjects.

Did it happen? Sorta. ESEA was finally reauthorized in late 2015. It does include some things the administration likes (including a requirement that states intervene in their lowest-performing schools), but big pieces of the administration’s original blueprint are missing (including teacher evaluation through test scores and dramatic school turnarounds). The legislation does, however, include some resources for STEM teachers.


The Ask: Obama asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would reshape the student lending program by getting rid of subsidized lenders, in favor of having students borrow directly from the U.S. Treasury. The savings, he said, could be directed to the Pell Grant program, which faced a shortfall, as well as to new initiatives on community colleges and early-childhood education.

The president also bragged about the success of his Race to the Top competitive-grant program and urged Congress to pass an ESEA bill that expanded the program to all 50 states. And he singled out education as a big potential winner in a year when domestic spending was supposed to stay level, proposing a $4 billion increase for the U.S. Department of Education, plus more money if lawmakers passed a reauthorization of ESEA.

Did it happen? Kind of. Congress, did, indeed, make the major changes to the student lending program in 2010 that the president suggested, passing them as part of the landmark health-care overhaul bill. And some of the savings were directed to Pell Grants. But, by the time the bill made it through Congress, the early-childhood education program had been jettisoned, due to lack of funds. (It came back, sort of, as Preschool Development Grants and a Race to the Top for early learning.) Plus, the idea wasn’t brand-new for the State of the Union address—it had come out in a previous budget proposal, and Congress was already working on it when Obama gave it a high-profile nod in his speech.

What about that funding increase? The Education Department’s budget actually went down in fiscal year 2011, in large part because Republicans took back the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 election.

What about 2009? Obama gave a speech to Congress that year, which featured education prominently and included a pledge to curb the drop-out rate. But there no official state-of-the-union, since it was, after all, his first year in office.

Related Tags: