SOTU outlines modest ed plans

During his fifth State-of-the-Union address on Jan. 28, President Obama announced no major new educational initiatives. Instead, he spent the modest amount of time he dedicated to education highlighting and defending his existing record on education, Obama also announced several modest expansions of existing programs and encouraged Congress to take action on expanding support for pre-Kindergarten.

The draft of the address, which clocked in at roughly 6,800 words, dedicated about 550 to education issues.  However, the six paragraphs focusing on educational issues were scattered throughout the address. That contrasted to the four paragraphs in a row in which Obama discussed the Affordable Care Act in the middle of the speech, or the three large paragraphs near the end in which he aggressively defended opening negotiations with Iran over the country’s nuclear program.

Perhaps the most ambitious program he announced was repeating his call to Congress to massively expand early childhood education nationally for four-year-olds.

“The problem is we’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time.  That has to change. Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” Obama said.

However, he didn’t get into specifics. The president didn’t name a specific dollar amount to invest, indicate whether it would work through existing programs like Head Start or develop new ones. Instead, he suggested that while Congress figured out what it wanted to do the administration would continue to work with states through existing law to expand access and raise funding. He also announced that the administration would develop “a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need,” which is in line with the administration’s admiration for an Oklahoma-style universal early-childhood education program funded both by state dollars and public-private partnerships.

Obama attached other proposals for education to broader discussions of economic competitiveness and implementing technology.  One major example was developing more “hubs for high-tech manufacturing” linked with local research universities, like the two facilities that federal money has already helped fund in the financially depressed areas of Youngstown, Ohio and Raleigh, North Carolina. He also discussed an ongoing program to link 20 more million students to broadband Internet service by 2016, announcing that several major corporations and the Federal Communications Commission had reached an accord to start implementing the goal.

Finally, he spent most of the rest of his time on education defending existing programs, like his Race-to-the-Top program which uses federal aid to prod states to develop more rigorous curricula and toughen student evaluations.  He also mentioned his administration’s successful attempts to rein in interest rates on Federal student loans, its ongoing attention to the increasing debt burdens of college and its moves to increase the financial transparency of colleges.

The limited ambitions for education policy matched the speech’s focus on executive actions. The Democratic Obama continues to face a House of Representatives majority controlled by Republicans who have expressed hostility to most of his major initiatives, which will likely stymie major legislation for the foreseeable future.

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