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Capitol Report: February 4, 2014

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

The president’s fifth State of the Union (SOTU) address focused on income disparity and a desire to give more Americans more opportunities. The speech had wide-ranging ideas on how to do that, and education ideas figured prominently. In fact, the president’s first words after salutations were, “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.”

In gearing up for the workforce and education portion of his address—which was lengthy—the president said, “The ideas I’ve outlined so far can speed up growth and create more jobs. But in this rapidly-changing economy, we have to make sure that every American has the skills to fill those jobs.” The president laid out multiple education priorities and said, “Of course, it’s not enough to train today’s workforce. We also have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education.” After telling the story of a recent working-class immigrant and his son, Estiven Rodriguez, who, “thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program” just found out he’s going to college this fall, the president spoke on an issue that has become familiar in his SOTU addresses: student loans, noting that he and his allies worked to reform student loans five years ago, and today, “[M]ore young people are earning college degrees than ever before.” He then hailed the success of the Race to the Top initiative, saying the program “has helped states raise expectations and performance ... Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it’s worth it—and it’s working.”

Early childhood education was President Obama’s next focus. Last year he asked Congress to make high-quality pre-K available to all four-year-olds and said, “I repeat that request tonight,” but noted that 30 states have improved pre-K programs in the meantime. This year, according to the president, “[W]e’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”

Referring to his ConnectED initiative and a desire to give more students and schools access to broadband, the president said, “I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.” He also worked the recent Department of Labor high school redesign initiative into his remarks, saying, “We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.” (It was reported later in the week that the Department of Labor received 275 applications for the $100 million competitive grant program.)  

The president also highlighted the college ratings work the White House and Department of Education have taken on, and he touted efforts to ease student loan obligations, such as repayment options that cap payments to 10 percent of borrower income. He also pledged outreach to foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.

To close out the education portion of his remarks, the president said, “The bottom line is, Michelle and I want every child to have the same chance this country gave us. But we know our opportunity agenda won’t be complete—and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise—unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.”

While his education agenda is ambitious, Republicans were quick to point out that they have been working on their solutions. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) issued a response that says, in part, “The president discussed a number of critical challenges that need to be addressed, such as strengthening job training assistance, supporting small businesses, fixing a broken education system, and putting more Americans back to work. The House has advanced commonsense, responsible solutions to these and other national priorities. We need willing partners in the White House and Senate who will work with us in good faith to find common ground and move our country forward.”  

While the SOTU address typically signals the forthcoming release of the president’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, the White House has already announced that an FY 2015 budget request won’t be sent to Capitol Hill until March 4. While the Olympics will be over by then, other games will begin in Washington.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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