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Will Educational Equity Be a State of the Union Theme?

President Barack Obama is expected to talk about income inequality and poverty in his state-of-the-union address on Tuesday. So what might that mean for education? We may have gotten some hints in the president's big, anti-poverty speech at the Center for American Progress Dec. 4.

That speech didn't unveil anything new on education policy. And it didn't touch much on K-12. Instead it was a rehash—and rhetorical reframing—of already-unveiled initiatives, such as the president's plan to expand pre-kindergarten education and his proposals to keep college costs down and make it easier for students to repay their debt. That has included a push to tie federal college aid in part to student outcomes—a previous state-of-the-union theme.

Expanding early childhood education was a big part of Obama's 2013 state of the union address. In the recent budget agreeement, he got a $1 billion downpayment on his proposal, mostly in the form of a big boost for the Head Start program, which serves early childhood education programs. Obama could tout that new investment in his address to Congress, while prodding lawmakers to go further and enact his full proposal. That plan, which would offer states matching grants to expand their pre-kindergarten programs, has a roughly $75 billion price tag, which has made it a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

In the CAP speech, Obama framed his pre-kindergarten plan as a way to advance educational equity.

"We know that kids in these programs ... are likelier to get more education, earn higher wages, form more stable families of their own. It starts a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one. And we should invest in that. We should give all of our children that chance," he said.

Another possible state-of-the-union theme: Expanding access to technology. The administration has already waded into this area in a big way, calling for a major overhaul of the e-rate program to help schools bolster their online course offerings, try out new approaches like the "flipped classroom" and get students ready for new, Common Core-aligned assessments. But the speech is a high-profile opportunity for the president to tout his ideas to a broader audience.

And job-training programs may get a shout-out. Recently, the Obama administration directed $100 million in Labor Department funds to a program to help high schools revamp their science, math, engineering, and technology programs. And, back in 2012, the administration put out a blue-print on revising career and technical education legislation.

Meanwhile, most advocates don't expect K-12 policy—which has taken center stage in previous years—to get much play in this year's state-of-the-union speech.

That was certaintly the case in the CAP speech—when it came to K-12 policy, Obama used the address simply to name-check policies his administration already has in place.

"We know that education is the most important predictor of income today, so we launched a Race to the Top in our schools, we're supporting states that have raised standards in teaching and learning, we're pushing for redesigned high schools that graduate more kids with the technical training and apprenticeships, the in-demand high-tech skills that can lead directly to a good job and a middle-class life," he said. 

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