President Barack Obama called on Congress in his State of the Union address to significantly expand access to preschool to all 4-year-olds from moderate- and low-income families, and to create a new spin-off of his Race to the Top program aimed at pushing high schools to adopt curricula that better prepare students for the jobs of the future.
He framed both proposals as part of a broader strategy to invest in the nation's economic future and bolster the middle class—the overaching theme of his first State of the Union speech since winning re-election. The president told the nation his ideas wouldn't add to the federal deficit, as Washington struggles to rein in spending.
The preschool expansion proposal would include incentives and support for states that want to substantially grow their early-childhood education offerings. And it would entice states to offer full-day kindergarten, which right now is only available in 10 states and the District of Columbia, White House aides said.
"Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America," Obama said. "Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."
It's unclear how the administration would cover the cost of the plan, but currently, the federal government spends $8 billion on the Head Start program, an early-childhood education program that originated in the 1960's to help the nation's poorest children get ready for school, as well as billions more in child care grants to states. The administration has already made serious changes to Head Start, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, requiring hundreds of centers nationwide to recompete for their grants in order to improve program quality.
The president's curriculum proposal would call for a Race to the Top competition for high schools to adopt more challenging coursework in areas such as computer science, engineering, and technology, as well as provide students with more "real world" experiences, through partnerships with colleges and employers.
"Four years ago, we started Race to the Top—a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy," Obama said. "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 the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future."
Obama also wants to see Career and Technical education programs—which were due for an update last year reauthorization—revamped to put more emphasis on preparing students for post-secondary education and the workforce. The administration put forward a blueprint for updating the program last year that called for making a portion of the funding competitive, which generally jibes with the broad proposal in the speech.
But a Race to the Top-style grant program for high school curriculum, which is how White House aides described the plan to reporters in advance of the speech, might well be panned in some conservative circles. Many in the GOP—and even some liberals—are already unhappy with the Obama administration for encouraging states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, which have been embraced by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
And he urged lawmakers to work towards tying federal college financial aid in part to student outcomes, such as graduation rates for traditionally underserved students—an idea initially floated in last year's State of the Union Address, but, also, never approved in Congress. The president would like to see college outcomes considered as part of the high education accreditation process.
Obama also noted that his administration has already taken steps to bring more transparency to post-secondary education—it's set to unveil an interactive tool to make it easier for students and their families to compare college costs and outcomes.
The president also asked Congress to vote on a package of proposals—crafted in the wake of the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut—which would call for a ban on military-style assault weapons and to require mandatory background checks for anyone who wants to purchase a gun. The package, unveiled last month, also seeks to help schools hire more resource officers and school psychologists, revamp safety plans, and train teachers to identify students with mental illnesses early on and get them the help they need.
And the president also asked lawmakers to approve a comprehensive immigration overhaul package that includes legislation similar to the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young people who came to the country as children, provided they get post-secondary training, or join the military. Obama has been a long supporter of the legislation, which failed to gain approval in Congress, even when it was overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats. In lieu of congressional action, he Obama has allowed some undocumented young adults and teenagers to remain in the country legally, through a temporary regulation.
Republicans, Education Groups Respond
In the Republican response to Obama's speech, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, thought to be a top contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, didn't criticize the president's proposals to expand preschool or the Race to the Top program.
Instead, he touted his party's own ideas: encouraging more advanced placement courses and vocational and career training, and more school choice, especially for special needs children.
He said he supported federal financial aid—just not spending more money on it.
"It's also about strengthening and modernizing," he said. "A 21st century work force 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."
He said student aid shouldn't discriminate against online courses, or degree programs that give credit for work experience.
Education groups, including the National Education Association, praised the president's focus on education in the speech. Preschool advocates, especially, cheered the president's emphasis on expanding early education.
"As President Obama enters his second term, we are hopeful that part of his legacy will encompass investments in our nation's youngest citizens," said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, in a statement.
Congressional reaction to the speech was generally divided along partisan lines.
Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who sits on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, was a big fan of the pre-kindergarten expansion proposal—although he's not expecting major new money for the initative. Instead, he thinks the administration would seek to allow states to use "an array" of existing federal funds to finance the plan. While Andrews wouldn't be opposed to new funds for early childhood, he realizes that might be a tough sell in the current political environment.
"I think its really smart, I think it's a doable" idea, he said. "I think it's not going to be a lot of new money."
But Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who oversees the House education subcommittee that deals with higher education, immediately dismissed the proposal.
"States are doing fine on pre-K," she said. "They don't need the federal government stepping in."
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., a former school board member and member of the House education committee, supports early-childhood education in general, but wants more details on the president's proposal. "I thought it was very vague," he said. And he cautioned that, "there's a limited role for the federal government on this issue."
Thompson also wanted to see more details on the Race to the Top for high school improvement proposal. Like many in the GOP, he has qualms about Race to the Top as a whole. But he was happy to hear the president emphasize math, science, and technology, as well as career and technical education. Those programs can really help "bridge the skills gap," he said.
Photo: Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Tuesday during a joint session of Congress in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP)