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Trump’s State of the Union Address and Education: What to Watch For

By Alyson Klein — January 29, 2018 5 min read
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President Donald Trump will give his first honest-to-goodness State of the Union address since taking office Tuesday night. So just how is education likely to show up in the speech?

Education was a sleeper star of last year’s pseudo SOTU. (It technically wasn’t a State of the Union address because Trump had just taken office.) The speech included a big shout-out for school choice in general, and specifically for Denisha Merriweather, then a graduate student, who benefitted from Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. (Merriweather is now working at the U.S. Department of Education to champion choice .) Trump also talked about other issues that impact K-12 schools, including child care, health care, and immigration.

This time around, folks in Washington are betting that school choice won’t be nearly as big a theme. But another education issue—the fate of so-called “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children—is almost certain to take center stage. The areas likely to get big focus in the speech also includes jobs and the economy, trade, infrastructure, and national security, according to a senior White House advisor.

What’s going on with those issues, and what else might come up in the SOTU? Here’s your quick preview:

Dreamers

Immigration is almost definitely going to come up in some way, as Congress and the White House are struggling to come up with a solution for the so-called “Dreamers” on a tight timeline.

Quick recap: Last year, Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to remain here legally. But he allowed DACA to stay on the books until early March, giving Congress time to come up with a longer-term solution for the 800,000 recipients, or “Dreamers.” It seems likely that Trump will use the speech to champion his plan to create a path for citizenship for some 1.8 million Dreamers, while at the same time spending $25 billion to build a wall on America’s southern border, and placing significant new restrictions on legal immigration. Democrats aren’t likely to accept that deal as it’s been proposed, and even some Republicans may take issue with it.

So what’s the connection to education? Nine thousand teachers are DACA recipients, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And 250,000 schoolchildren have become DACA-eligible since Obama first unveiled the program in 2012, also according the organization. It’s unclear what will happen to these folks if DACA is rescinded. Some school districts, including Los Angeles and Miami-Dade, have said they’ll do everything they can to protect employees and students covered under DACA, if the program goes away.

Democrats plan to fill the galleries with Dreamers, whose future remains uncertain as Congress and the White House negotiate.

Infrastructure

A big new infrastructure plan is expected to take center stage in the speech. Right now, it doesn’t sound like the Trump administration is planning to make school construction a part of its proposal. (Check out this leaked draft of the plan, obtained by Axios). But it’s likely that any infrastructure push will need to garner at least some Democratic support to put it over the finish line. Democrats wanted to direct some $100 billion to school construction in their own infrastructure plan, unveiled last spring. And more recently a bipartisan group of senators, plus House Democrats, urged Trump to consider partnering with states to modernize and repair schools.

School Choice

School choice was supposed to be the Trump administration’s signature education issue. Trump pitched a $20 billion private school voucher initiative on the campaign trail. And he chose Betsy DeVos, one of the biggest proponents of choice in the country, as his education secretary. But Trump’s first year yielded only one modest gain on school choice: allowing parents to use 529 college savings plans for K-12 private school tuition, part of the recently enacted federal tax overhaul. Even DeVos acknowledged that this doesn’t do much for low-income kids.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s school choice budget proposals—a new private school voucher program and a pitch to direct some federal funds for public school choice—fell flat in Congress last year. Trump may say something about the power of choice, and could even take a victory lap on the 529 change. But the issue isn’t likely to be as prominent in the speech as it was last year.

STEM

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education is a favorite topic for Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a senior White House adviser. So far, though, the Trump administration has only taken modest steps to strengthening STEM. Back in September, the White House directed DeVos and company to allocate $200 million in existing competitive grant money toward STEM, especially computer science. At the same time, though, the Trump administration sought to nix funding for Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (aka Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act), which districts can use a bunch of purposes, including technology.

Career and Technical Education

Members of Trump’s cabinet, including DeVos, have been pushing the idea of apprenticeships and postsecondary certifications hard in recent months. (There’s even a White House task force on apprenticeships, which DeVos helps to lead.) Congress is in the midst of reauthorizing the main legislation governing these programs—in fact a bipartisan bill already passed the House. And this fits into the theme of “Jobs and the Economy.” So it’s an area to watch.

Child Care

This is another of Ivanka Trump’s favorite issues. During the campaign, she helped her father develop a plan for expanding child care, primarily through tax credits. That proposal wasn’t included in the new GOP tax overhaul law. But the legislation did increase in the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, called this only “token” help for low-income families. Still, it’s possible that Trump may highlight this change in his speech.

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