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Obama’s State of the Union Education Plans

Comments from education leaders, supporting and critiquing the president’s plans, in discussion with DA staff writer Alison DeNisco.

Expanding early education programs and redesigning high schools to prepare students for a high-tech economy were among the educational goals proposed by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. His plans, focusing on early education as well as higher education, represent a move away from the emphasis of his first term on changes to K12, such as the Race to the Top initiative and redesigning No Child Left Behind.

“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” Obama said, as growing evidence shows that such programs help close the achievement gap for low-income students. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” he added. Though funding for this initiative remains unclear, Obama is scheduled to make a speech at an early education center in Georgia on Thursday, possibly to expand upon his plan.

Preparing students for a global economy is also a priority, including graduating high school students who are ready for college or a career in technology. “We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs," Obama said.

In addition, the president proposed a “Fix-It-First” program to create jobs repairing bridges and other structures, along with a Partnership to Rebuild America to attract private capital for such upgrades, including those for “modern schools worthy of our children.”

The following are initial reactions from education associations to his address.

ASCD Director of Public Policy David Griffith

We agree that high-quality pre-school education has tremendous long-term benefits for students and the country, and eagerly look forward to hearing more details on the president’s call for universal pre-school for all children. Likewise, the president’s proposal to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy is consistent with our goals.

Unfortunately, the president did not adequately address what we see as a primary weakness in federal K12 policy: the lack of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). We reiterate that our biggest priority this year is for ESEA reauthorization with provisions:

· Creating meaningful accountability systems;

· Encouraging comprehensive improvement strategies; and

· Promoting adequate and effective preparation and ongoing professional development for educators to improve student outcomes.

ASCD also asks the president and Congress to collaborate and find an alternative to the scheduled March 1 sequestration that protects education funding. As a healthy education system is a critical component to ensuring the future economic health of the country, we cannot afford what will be the largest cut to education spending in history.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Executive Director Jerlean Daniel

We were very pleased to see the attention on early childhood education in the State of the Union address. We look forward to working on a robust, well-financed agenda that addresses the entire span of early childhood education with bipartisan support.

NAEYC has provided a leadership voice in all these areas with a Call to Action and the Continuum of Learning Act, which address the critical components, including additional investments, needed to apply the research on children’s development and learning into programs around the nation.

When families do not have the ability to afford child care, cannot enroll in Early Head Start or Head Start, or have no quality early childhood options in their communities, we put families’ economic security and children’s positive development at risk. When program providers and schools do not have the financial and other resources to hire skilled teachers, to purchase appropriate curricula and equipment, and meet other quality standards, we create conditions of achievement inequity for children and undermine a valuable workforce.

StudentsFirst CEO and founder Michelle Rhee

I am encouraged that President Obama is talking about our education system as a key economic engine that will help drive our country’s recovery and strengthen our middle class. Unlike many of our international counterparts, Americans for far too long have treated our education system as a social issue and not an economic priority.

President Obama knows the transformative power of an excellent education—our nation’s great equalizer which helps many escape the cycle of poverty—and we agree that America’s economic recovery can be hastened if we focus on preparing today’s kids for tomorrow’s workforce.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)

Helping the middle class grow will require an education system that gives people the skills today’s jobs entail and the knowledge that tomorrow’s world will require. We need to incentivize local school districts to offer more Advanced Placement courses and more vocational and career training. We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.

A 21st-century workforce should not be forced to accept 20th-century education solutions. Today’s students aren’t only 18-year-olds. They’re returning veterans. They’re single parents who decide to get the education they need to earn a decent wage. And they’re workers who have lost jobs that are never coming back and need to be retrained.

We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that non-traditional students rely on—like online courses, or degree programs that give you credit for work experience.

All these measures are key to helping the economy grow. But we won’t be able to sustain a vibrant middle class unless we solve our debt problem.

Foundation for Child Development President Deborah A. Phillips

Not since 1971 has early childhood education been elevated to the top of the federal policy agenda. But, the State of the Union Address did precisely this. FCD funded the key research in Oklahoma and elsewhere that establishes the cost effectiveness and educational value of early childhood education.

Economists to neuroscientists have established the critical role that educational opportunities prior to elementary school play in forging children's capacities to learn. We look forward to applying this research evidence to real policy change working with policymakers from both sides of the aisle in the months ahead.

National PTA President Betsy Landers

The 2013 State of the Union showcased several of National PTA’s key concerns related to the education, health, and safety of children. National PTA praises President Obama’s support of mitigating the impact of sequestration on education, ensuring school safety, providing early childhood education, helping students become college- and career-ready and engaging men in the lives of children.

The president, however, failed to directly address comprehensive reauthorization of ESEA. In 2013, National PTA will urge Congress to take bipartisan action to address needed changes to the law governing the federal role in public education. Although administrative regulatory relief provided to states through the ESEA flexibility program is addressing some flaws of the law, it is not an acceptable substitute for bipartisan legislative action on comprehensive reauthorization.

Even with the absence of this commitment, the president’s emphasis on education in the State of the Union address was commendable, especially in ensuring school safety, providing early childhood education, helping students become college- and career-ready, and engaging men in the lives of children.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel

Education creates opportunity. Investing in early childhood education, making college more affordable and supporting career pathways in community colleges are essential parts of our nation’s unbending commitment to educational excellence. Now is the time to start making smart investments that will benefit students and the nation in the future.

We are encouraged that the president chose to shine a spotlight on the pressing issues that affect educators and the nation’s students—impending across-the-board budget cuts, gun violence and immigration—during the State of the Union address.

We join the president in calling on Congress to enact sound fiscal policies that create jobs, promote fairness and prosperity, and rebuild the middle class. With the looming March 1 deadline that could trigger across-the-board budget cuts, Congress has to put partisan politics aside and seek a more balanced approach to get our nation’s fiscal house in order without inflicting irreversible harm on our nation’s 50 million students and risking their future—while allowing corporations and the wealthiest to pay their fair share by closing tax loopholes.

We echo the president’s urgent call to keep our students and their campuses safer. Educators and the nation have grieved too long and too often—for the children killed, their families, and the heroic educators who gave their lives trying to protect their students.