Even as Congress has jump-started the most serious attempt in a decade to revise the No Child Left Behind Act with a heated debate over high-stakes testing, President Barack Obama stayed above the fray in his State of the Union address last week.
He didn’t mention the law—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—by name. In fact, he barely referenced K-12 education at all.
Instead, Mr. Obama used the Jan. 20 speech to make his most prominent pitch yet for a sweeping proposal to make the first two years of community college free for most students. The plan, which he first unveiled at a community college in Tennessee earlier this month, would give about 9 million students an average of $3,800 a year to cover college costs.
“By the end of this decade, 2 in 3 job openings will require some higher education,” the president said. “Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, young, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.
“That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college to zero.”
The lion’s share of the proposal’s estimated price tag—about $60 billion over a decade—would be covered through a slew of changes to the tax system, including raising the top capital gains tax, hiking the amount of inherited money subject to taxes, and placing new fees on financial institutions.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have already dismissed the plan.
“We’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget—with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes, like the president has proposed,” newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said in the Republican response.
In one of his few nods to K-12 education, President Obama played up the progress that he says the nation has made through education redesign: “Our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high.”
But otherwise, the president didn’t engage in a debate over the federal mandate on student testing or reference the administration’s signature programs, such as the Race to the Top grant competition and School Improvement Grants.
Scaling back the annual assessments in the current ESEA has bipartisan support in Congress. But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pushed hard for keeping the tests in place, and the White House has backed him up.
In a statement released after the address, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Senate education committee, noted the lack of attention to “fixing No Child Left Behind” in the speech, and said that most of the president’s education proposals had no chance of becoming law.
Focus on Young Children
Early-education advocates found more to celebrate in the speech. For the third year in a row, Mr. Obama extolled the virtues of early education in getting children ready for K-12 schools.
In the administration’s proposed tax package, the White House is aiming to triple the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which helps families cover the cost of caring for children under 13, to $3,000 per child, up from $1,000.
“In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever,” the president said. “It’s not a nice-to-have—it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”
Though President Obama didn’t name-check it in his speech this time around, the administration has used previous State of the Union addresses to promote a $75 billion proposal for ramping up early-childhood education. That idea has yet to gain traction in Congress, although lawmakers did enact a small piece of the plan in 2014 by offering states $250 million in preschool development grants.
And with concerns growing about child privacy in today’s data-rich world, Mr. Obama reiterated his call for legislation to protect students’ online information. Earlier this month, the White House pitched federal legislation along the lines of a California law that prohibits companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools, and that bars them from using such data to target ads to children.
“Tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyberattacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information,” Mr. Obama said. “If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as K-12 Issues Given Short Shrift in State of the Union Address