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UPDATED: Obama’s Congressional Address: Education Key to Economic Recovery

By Michele McNeil — February 25, 2009 3 min read
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Barack Obama is putting his mouth where his money is.

After leading the charge for a $787 billion stimulus package that includes a mind-boggling $115 billion in education aid, Barack Obama tonight put education reform on the national stage like it never was during the campaign. He used his first Congressional address -- a State of the Union of sorts -- to pledge to curb dropout rates, increase college-going rates, and fund programs that close the achievement gap and improve teacher performance.

It was as if education was a huge campaign issue! (Which it wasn’t....)

Though much of his education rhetoric wasn’t new, it showed where his priorities rest. In Obama’s trio of critical issues that will shape our economic future, the president listed energy, health care...and education.

He reiterated his call that $100 billion in stimulus money for education must come with reform. He renewed his call for expanding the federal committment to charter schools. He bemoaned the too-high high school dropout rates: “This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

He also hit on the tenet of personal responsibility and urged everyone to commit to an extra year of college or career training, even implying that dropping out of school was unAmerican. “And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

So he set a new goal--that by 2020, the United States will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. (It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, because a new $2,500 tax credit for college tuition that’s in the stimulus package isn’t likely to get us there all by itself.)

He also touted the stimulus package for providing "...the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children’s progress.” (Except it’s likely that many states, such as California and Florida, will still see teacher layoffs and program cuts even with the stimulus.)

As for his budget, which he’ll unveil in the next few days Obama pledged: "...we will end education programs that don’t work...” We already know that Reading First and the D.C. voucher program are on the chopping block, but Obama is putting everyone on notice that he’ll make good on his promise to use a scapel to cut out ineffective programs.

Tomorrow, the administration comes to get right to work on pumping out stimulus money. Vice President Joe Biden (who’s now heading up the implementation of the stimulus package) will be joined by education secretary Arne Duncan in a meeting with state schools chiefs from around the country.

But back to tonight, Obama also honored several people during the speech. Getting a special guest-of-honor ringside speech, according to the White House, were five students. Three were high school students from Washington D.C. public schools who are planning to go to college, another is a Howard University communications student, and the fifth is an eighth grader from Dillon, South Carolina, whose school -- Martin Junior High School -- struck a chord with Obama. He visited the school, part of the I-95 “Corridor of Shame” during a 2007 campaign stop and talked about the school in a press conference earlier this month touting the value of stimulus dollars.

According to the White House, after Ty’Sheoma Bethea heard Obama mention her school earlier this month, she walked to the public library after school to gain access to a computer to compose a poignant letter to Congress asking for help.

Obama said: “She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, ‘We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.’”

UPDATE: For another Republican reaction to the speech, read Flypaper’s disappointed-dad commentary.

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