State of the Union: The Day After


January 29, 2014

By Charles Barone and Domenic Giandomenico

Last night, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union Address. Within his speech, the President outlined a few very worthy education policies he plans to pursue in 2014. He stated his intent to promote high-quality early childhood education, lower college costs, and integrate pre-graduation high school programs with what students need to succeed in college and the workforce. We like what we heard on these policies. It’s the silence in other areas that concerns us.

As he did in last year’s SOTU, President Obama once again focused on his push to expand access to high-quality pre-K education programs. This is inarguably an essential education reform that, if done right, can help put millions of students on a path to success in elementary school and beyond. We applaud the President for making expanded access to high-quality pre-K a top priority for his administration.

In higher education, the President rightly touted his administration’s efforts in bringing stakeholders to the table to make college more affordable and student loans more manageable. In workforce training, he designated Vice President Joe Biden to connect our job training programs to actual in-demand jobs. Finally, Obama cited the work of his administration in supporting the redesign of high schools to better align them with the demands of college and careers.

All of these should be top priorities. However, they leave some equally important issues left unaddressed. In addition to the plan he outlined, we hope Obama’s work on education in the coming year, and before the end of his term, includes ambitious plans for students in K-10, particularly with regard to: overhauling our nation’s deeply flawed system of teacher training; and, correcting a system through which the least effective teachers are paired with the students who most need intensive, high-quality instruction. Failure to act on these two items borders on education policy negligence.

Based on input from a variety of interested parties from both K-12 and higher education, Obama drafted a plan in 2012 to hold teacher preparation programs, which receive $4 billion annually in federal funds, accountable for ensuring teachers enter the profession ready to do their jobs. The plan would implement a law that was passed a year before Obama entered office. It’s been sitting on a White House shelf for a year and a half. This is a perfect fit for the type of “Pen and Phone” action, aimed at working around a dysfunctional Congress, that the President intends to take over the coming months. Most important, it helps teachers and it helps students.

The President also can – and should – act to implement a policy to ensure an equitable distribution of excellent teachers across income and racial lines. The policy was passed into law in 2002, and was reiterated in 2009 when Congress passed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (aka “The Stimulus”) accompanied by more than $100 billion in education funding to states and school districts. Just last June, it was the declared policy of the Department of Education, but only for about a week.

Last night the President said: “what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all.” In education, ensuring every child – regardless race, family income, or zip code – has access to a well-prepared and effective teacher is the only credible way to act on that belief.

We recognize that the State of the Union is not the place for detailed policy proposals. Yet the fact that the President left out such a wide swath of the education spectrum, when there are some vital things in that space that are long overdue to be addressed, is somewhat disconcerting.

We hope President Obama rolls out the rest of his education agenda in a way that fulfills the promises he’s made to ALL our nation’s students and that he uses the coming days and months to do the important things that were left unsaid in the State of the Union Address last evening.