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A Glass Half-Full SOTU

President Obama's State of the Union remarks on education were thematic and clichéd, but his themes were admirable and his clichés were sensible. This made sense in a speech which proclaimed "the future is ours to win." Moreover, in a pleasant surprise, his bracing words were unencumbered by calls for new spending or new programs. And, for what it's worth, I found heart-warming and credible some of his conciliatory words and paeans to the American family and the American spirit.

The President led off by talking not about schools or spending, but about families and parental responsibility. The President noted, "It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline."

The President had admirably firm words for schools; words it would have been startling to hear a national Democratic figure utter even four or five years ago. He said, "When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don't meet this test. That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top." I'd quibble with the President's characterization of RTT, but the sentiment is admirable enough. The President then doubled down, declaring, "We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones."

The President urged Congress to "replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids." Despite the applause it got, that sentiment is unlikely to come to fruition this year--but the charge is a starting point.

All that said, there were plenty of disappointments. The President was disingenuous when he characterized the under-the-radar nationalization of student lending (in the Health Care Reform Act) as entailing the end of "unwarranted taxpayer subsidies" to banks. He was unconvincing when he blandly announced that we're helping workers retool for a fast-changing economy by "revitalizing America's community colleges." It was a shame he didn't say anything about the need to boost productivity or address unaffordable pensions.

And it would've been nice to see the President suggest that his SOTU paeans to free enterprise, innovation, and technology also applied to education. But let's not be greedy.

On the broader question of living within our means and doing something about the burden we're imposing on our children and today's students, there was a glaring disjuncture between word and deed. To paraphrase St. Augustine, the President's plea seemed to be, "Lord, help us stop living beyond our means, but not just yet."

He announced, "We are living with a legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago. And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary...But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same."

When push came to shove, however, the President came up short. His tepid "domestic discretionary freeze" (accompanied with various exceptions) shaves perhaps one percent of projected spending over the next decade. He talked of the need to control unaffordable entitlement spending, but seemingly took any serious measures off the table. He reassured 98% of Americans that their taxes, nonetheless, would stay down. All of this sets a dismal example for states and school districts asked to make do.

Still and all, I liked the music even where I thought the lyrics came up short.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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