Obama Sells Race to Top, Early-Childhood Education in State of the Union

Obama State of the Union 2014By Alyson Klein for Education Week.

President Barack Obama placed education at the center of a broad strategy to bolster economic mobility and combat poverty—calling on Congress in his State of the Union speech to approve previously unveiled initiatives to expand preschool to more 4-year-olds, beef up job-training programs, and make post-secondary education more effective and accessible.

“Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old,” said Obama, whose education agenda in his second term has shifted away from K-12 toward prekindergarten and college affordability. “As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can’t wait.”

Obama used his speech to mount an indirect defense of the common-core standards and a more spirited, direct defense of the program that spurred states to adopt them: Race to the Top. This, too, from an administration that has been blamed for threatening the future of the Common Core State Standards by supporting them—and from a president who hasn’t talked much at all about Race to the Top in recent major speeches. He credits his Race to the Top competitive-grant program with helping raise standards—and performance (which many may argue it’s too soon to tell).

“Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance.  Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it’s worth it—and it’s working,” he said.

In short, however, Obama proposed nothing substantially new for K-12. In fact, he has given many of these policy priorities a nod in previous State of the Union speeches. But so far, a deeply divided Congress hasn’t enabled him to bring any of the proposals over the legislative finish line. Obama made it clear he plans to use his executive muscle—and the power of the bully pulpit—to get moving on his agenda when he can’t find bipartisan support for his wish list in Congress.

“America does not stand still—and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

Bypassing Congress is not a new strategy for the administration, which has pushed through sweeping K-12 policy without congressional approval. When movement on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stalled, the administration took matters into its own hands, offering more than 40 states waivers from the mandates of the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

And the administration has said it may go further. The U.S. Department of Education is contemplating issuing new rules that could prod states to ensure that poor and minority children get access to as many high-quality teachers as their more-advantaged peers. The department promised a new “50-state strategy” would be launched in earnest by the end of January.

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