In State of the Union, Obama Pitches College Access, Child-Care Aid
President Barack Obama used his penultimate State of the Union address to call for a dramatic expansion in college access and increased investments in early childhood, including help for parents in covering childcare costs. But both proposals are part of a broad overhaul of the tax system that is already getting the thumbs-down from a Republican-controlled Congress.
Meanwhile, K-12 policy largely took a back seat, despite an escalating debate in Congress over federally mandated student testing.
For the speech's biggest-ticket education item, Obama made his most prominent pitch yet for a sweeping proposal aimed at making the first two years of community college free for most students. The plan, first unveiled at a community college in Tennessee earlier this month, seeks to offer about nine million students an average of $3,800 a year to cover college costs. "
"By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education," he said, according to prepared remarks released in advance of the speech. "Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, young striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It's not fair to them, and it's not smart for our future. That's why I'm sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college to zero."
The lion's share of the proposal's estimated price tag—about $60 billion over a decade—would be covered through a slew of changes to the tax system, including raising the top capital gains tax (which generally impacts investors), hiking the amount of inherited money subject to taxes, and placing new fees on financial institutions.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have already thrown cold water on the tax proposal, decrying it as not serious or balanced. But in the speech, Obama framed the tradeoff as a way to bolster the fortunes of middle-class taxpayers, whom he said have helped fuel the nation's economic recovery.
"Middle-class economics works," Obama said. "Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way."
K-12 Policy Prescriptions
On the K-12 front, Obama played up the progress that the nation has made through education redesign, saying: "Our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high."
But otherwise, the president stayed above the fray on the hottest K-12 policy debate in Congress in over a decade: As it rewrites the federal No Child Left Behind Act, should the federal government should continue to require annual testing?
Scaling back the annual assessments in the current law has bipartisan support in Congress. But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been pushing hard for keeping the tests in place—and the White House has backed him up.
Separately, according to documents released shortly before the speech, Obama administration is also calling on Congress to boost resources for disadvantaged kids. Duncan said recently that the administration's budget request, due out next month, calls for $2.7 billion in new education spending, including an extra $1 billion in Title I money, which is currently funded at nearly $15 billion.
And the White House is planning a new push to help communities develop "next generation" high schools with a focus on science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The administration will host a summit on high school redesign later this year. The proposal appears to borrow from a previous ask for a Race to the Top-style competition for high schools, unveiled in the president's 2013 state of the union speech.
In his address, Obama also touted a new technical education grant aimed at bolstering existing programs that meet certain criteria, including strong employer partnerships, work-based learning opportunities, and a schedule that accommodates part-time work.
"We're connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics," he said.
Those proposals would build on the various investments his administration has championed in higher education, including an increase in Pell Grant funding for low-income college students and the income-contingent student loan repayment plan, which pegs borrowers' repayments to 10 percent of their income.
For the third year in a row, Obama used the speech to extoll the virtues of early education in getting students ready for K-12 schools. In its proposed tax package, the White House is aiming to triple the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which helps families cover the cost of caring for children under 13, to $3,000 per child, up from $1,000.
"In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever," the president said. "It's not a nice-to-have—it's a must-have. It's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us."
Though Obama didn't name-check it in his speech this time around, the administration has used previous State of the Union addresses to push hard on a $75 billion proposal for ramping up early childhood education. That idea has yet to gain traction in Congress, although lawmakers did enact a small piece of the plan in 2014 by offering states $250 million in preschool development grants.
With concerns growing about child privacy in today's data-rich world, Obama reiterated his call for legislation to protect students' online information. Earlier this month, the White House pitched federal legislation along the lines of an existing California law that prohibits companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools, and that bars them from using such data to target ads to children.
"Tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information," Obama said. "If we don't act, we'll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable."
The president also made an oblique note of recent changes to the E-rate program, which brings high speed internet connectivity to schools. Just last month the Federal Communications Commission boosted the spending cap on the program from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, a move which school leaders and the ed-tech community saw as a sea-change.
"I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world," he said.
The speech also included a low-key ask for a comprehensive immigration-overhaul bill that would give students who came to the United States as children a path to citizenship.
"Passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," Obama said.
The Obama administration has already taken controversial steps on immigration through executive action. The policies allow undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors to remain here legally. And the parents of undocumented children who have been in the country for at least five years also got a reprieve.
But in order to make those changes permanent, the administration will need to update the nation's immigration laws.
So what's the reaction?
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who is at the beginning of her very first term in Congress, gave the Republican response to the address.
Ernst has called for getting rid of the Education Department, but that wasn't part of her speech. Instead, she focused on curtailing the Obama administration, which Republicans say has overstepped its bounds through policies like the NCLB waivers, and highlighted differences between the GOP and the administration when it comes to taxes and spending.
"We'll work to correct executive overreach," Ernst said. "We'll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget—with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes, like the President has proposed."
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, had a similar take. "The president believes more spending, more mandates, and more programs will solve the problems we face," he said.
Over on the Senate side, Lamar Alexander, R.-Tenn, the chairman of the Senate education committee, noted the lack of attention to "fixing No Child Left Behind" in the speech, and said that most of the education proposals had no chance of becoming law.
Supporters included Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association. She said in a statement that the union is "encouraged that the president again chose to shine a spotlight on education."
"We agree with him that education is an economic priority and elevating the issue before Congress is an explicit acknowledgement that the road to the middle class runs directly through our nation's schools regardless of the zip code in which students live," she said.
She didn't mention the big differences between the administration and the NEA when it comes to testing.
And speaking for the House education committee Democrats, Bobby Scott of Virginia praised many of the proposals as potentially bipartisan: "The proposals address the need for more high-paying jobs and stronger wages. The president recognized that to make the middle class robust, we must work on increasing access to high-quality child care, affordable health care, and higher education," he said.
The focus on higher education access via community college brought attention from some key players.
"It was really good," Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Education Week. "It's time to get beyond K through 12 and get to K through 14."
And as for Obama's call to ramp up technology in the classrooms: "I'm all for that," Durbin said. "I think there's a lot we can do in bringing our education achievements into the 21st century.
Staff writer Lauren Camera contributed to this item.
Photo: Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 20. Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP