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State of the Union: What Education Analysts Expect to Hear

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The annual State of the Union address to Congress – and the nation – is President Obama’s opportunity to outline his administration’s goals for the coming months, but it’s also an opportunity to look back at the education priorities outlined in last year’s address – and what progress, if any, has been made on them.

Among the big buzzwords in the 2013 State of the Union: college affordability, universal access to early childhood education, and workforce development.

There does appear to be some movement on several of those fronts: An omnibus spending bill in Congress would roll back much of the cuts of last year’s sequestration, and would significantly boost funding for Head Start programs. But the higher education community is still waiting for the White House to finalize its blueprint for a new accountability system intended to help students and families be smarter shoppers when it comes to choosing a college and figuring out how to pay for it.

Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst for the New America Foundation, told me that this time around she expects higher education “will get even more air time (in the State of the Union address) as part of the administration’s broader priority to strengthen the middle class and reduce income inequality.”

I asked her what she hoped to hear in the speech, and Hyslop said as much as she’d like there to be a focus on K-12 initiatives, that’s largely moved to the “legacy” category. Past years have included big-ticket initiatives such as the School Improvement Grant program and Race To The Top, but those billion-dollar days are probably over. 

“If we hear much about K-12, it will likely be in the name of improving college readiness, both in terms of academic preparedness and in better information on the college-going process for students and their families,” Hyslop said.

Mike Petrilli, vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., has his own hope for Tuesday night: That the president avoids any mention of the new Common Core State Standards.

“I hope he says nothing, nada, zilch” Petrilli told me. “For obvious reasons – it only feeds the anti-Common Core frenzy on the right.”

Indeed, the new standards, adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, have become a source of controversy and contention: both for the educators responsible for implementing them and the vocal critics who believe there are ulterior motives behind the push for uniform expectations of what the nation’s students will need to learn at each grade level. While the initiative had early bipartisan support, that’s eroded in the past year over fears about a loss of state control, concerns about the cost and logistics of implementing new assessments, and confusion over how the new expectations are to be incorporated into daily instruction.

What Petrilli expects to hear in the State of the Union are the themes the president outlined in a speech on income equality in December. (New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman contends that Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a speech of his own, already made the president’s case.)

“He’ll explain how education is closely linked to opportunity, which is why we need to expand preschool, continue reforming our K-12 schools, create better career and technical education programs, and make college more affordable,” Petrilli said. “All of which is fine–and all of which Congress will promptly ignore.”

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business think tank in Washington, D.C., said he expected the president to touch on key themes including “the need to control college costs and boost educational expectations, to invest wisely in education technology, to expand high-quality pre-K, and to keep working to recruit and support great teachers.” Hess said he’d consider it to be “a bonus if (Obama) would also once again challenge the nation’s parents and children to elevate their game.”

But like Petrilli, Hess wasn’t optimistic that the “president’s pleasing words” would spur useful action. Rather, his fears include “more short-sighted micromanagement of school discipline by the Department of Justice along with more attacks on school choice programs, and more paper-driven grant competitions in which states and make big promises they pretend to mean—and which federal officials pretend to believe.”

It’s likely the president will touch on issues that will affect public schools even if they are not framed as education issues. Among them: Immigration reform, which could have a significant impact on opportunities for the children of undocumented immigrants to attend (and pay for) college. And certainly, better access to stronger educational opportunities is a big part of addressing income inequality. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she would like the State of the Union to reflect the concerns voters across the country have said matter to them.

“Americans are looking to re-establish the steps of the ladder to opportunity, starting with early childhood education, living wages, good jobs and a joy of learning,” Weingarten said. “Rather than the yearly over-testing of our students, I’d like to see us deeply examine and embrace what other countries that outperform us in education do: hands-on learning, professional development and wraparound services. We need to make public schools the center of communities, which open the door to the American dream.”

I would say innovation, competition, expectations, opportunity, parents and teachers are all safe bets on the buzzwords bingo card list. But the more important question is whether the speech will manage to build a spirit of comity on the Hill regarding education policy, and if that will translate into meaningful action. To be sure, there’s more to be done when it comes to improving the nation’s public education system and opportunities for students than one speech – or one president, by himself – can accomplish.



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