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Watching for Education Themes in the State of the Union Speech

UPDATED

It remains to be seen how often—and how specifically—education will come up in President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address tonight, which many advocates and observers speculate will touch on early-childhood education and college access, among other issues.

In some of Obama's previous State of the Union speeches, K-12 education, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention. But, now that the Obama administration's has given more than 30 states waivers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, K-12 policy may take a back seat to pre-K.

The big news tonight may come in the area of early-childhood education. Advocates are expecting some sort of policy proposal, even though the president isn't likely to have a lot of new money for a big, new initiative. Could the president use dollars that already go to early-childhood education, through programs such as Head Start and child-care grants, to cover the cost of expanding access and/or improving the quality of early-childhood education programs? Could the proposals be more limited (something more akin to the Race to the Top early-learning program)? The Center for American Progress—a think tank closely aligned with the Obama administration—has some ideas for the administration here that are worth checking out. One telling clue that there may be a proposal? On Thursday, right after the big speech, Obama will visit an early-childhood education program in Georgia.

Another hint? Susan Bumgarner, an early childhood educator from Oklahoma will be in First Lady Michelle Obama's box tonight. Oklahoma is a national leader on universal pre-school—and about as red as a state can be.

College access could also be important. This isn't a new focus for the president. In his most recent State of the Union Address, Obama floated new ideas for tying some federal college aid to student outcomes, such as the graduation rates of traditionally underserved populations. And this summer, federal student loan rates are slated to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent—a prospect that prompted a huge congressional fight last year, which ended in a delay of the increase.

Immigration and gun control—two issues with implications for education policy, are expected to be at the heart of the speech.

Obama is pushing Congress to approve comprehensive immigration legislation, including a path to citizenship for young adults who came to the country illegally as children, particularly if they seek some sort of post-secondary education or join the military. The administration has long supported the DREAM Act, which would put that policy in place, but Congress so far hasn't been able to pass it. Instead, Obama has put forth a temporary regulatory solution, which would allow some young, undocumented adults, who arrived in the country as children to stay and work. Obama will likely look for something more permanent this year. Alan Aleman, a student from Las Vegas who benefited from the regulatory fix will be in the first lady's box.

And cracking down on gun violence—including taking steps to improve school safety—also is an Obama priority. The administration has outlined a series of policy prescriptions to help avoid another massacre like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December. The list includes a ban on military-style assault weapons, along with a call for mandatory background checks for would-be gun buyers. But it also includes a myriad of school safety and mental health proposals aimed at everything from increasing the number of school resource officers and helping schools revamp their safety plans to training teachers to recognize mental illness early on. Kaitlin Roig, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook, will be Michelle Obama's guest.

Of course, the big piece of pressing business on Congress' plate right now isn't any of those things: It's the "sequester," a series of planned, across-the-board budget cuts set to hit just about every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education, on March 1. Obama has already called on Congress to put a stop to the reductions, which would amount to the biggest cut to education spending in history, but so far Congress hasn't done anything to stop them. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and the new chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, will be holding a hearing on the cuts on Thursday, featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will talk about the impact the cuts would have on schools and colleges. How will Obama frame the fight over sequestration tonight? Stay tuned.

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