President Barack Obama's 2014 State of the Union address ran short on fresh education policy ideas, unlike in previous years, according to the text of his speech.
Instead of announcing new initiatives, Obama mostly expanded on proposals he announced during and since last year's State of the Union address, tying them to his theme of fighting poverty and pushing the country forward despite legislative inaction. Obama promoted a competition to redesign high school, boosting schools' Internet connectivity, and making college more affordable and accessible -- all ideas he has already proposed.
Obama made only passing mentions of signature administration education initiatives, such as waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Race to the Top competition, according to his prepared remarks. And he alluded to the Common Core State Standards without mentioning them by name.
"Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy," Obama said. "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."
Obama put fresh rhetorical force behind a plan to expand preschool. "Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old," Obama said. "As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight."
Last year, after The Huffington Post was first to report on administration officials planning a preschool expansion push, Obama announced the expansion in his 2013 State of the Union. In that speech, Obama proposed a new federal-state partnership that would fund preschool for all 4-year-olds whose families make below 200 percent of the poverty line, along with some other reforms -- with an estimated $100 billion cost.
Since then, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan toured the country seeking Republican support for the program, to no avail. A congressional effort to create the program has not yet attracted sufficient Republican support to make Obama's vision a reality. Despite the administration's lobbying to include the plan in the recent omnibus budget bill, the White House succeeded only in winning a limited amount of preschool money in the form of a new round of the Race to the Top competition.
In the meantime, Obama seems resigned to executing that smaller version of the plan. "We’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children," he said Tuesday, according to prepared remarks. "As Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."
Obama also promoted the Internet connectivity plan. "Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit," he said.
Obama first announced the proposal, called "ConnectEd," in June. Obama said he aimed to have 99 percent of schools online with high-speed Internet over the next five years. The goal, Obama said, was to enable all students to tap into digital learning, allow teachers and schools to buy and use technological devices to enhance teaching, and to better track student data online -- initiatives that might run into trouble as more Americans worry about the privacy of student data in the cloud.
Obama sought to fund the program by expanding the Federal Communication Commission's E-Rate program at an additional cost of $5 a year on home phone bills. The FCC can revamp E-Rate without congressional approval. In a January speech, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler called the initiative a priority.
Obama also mentioned a previously announced plan to spur innovation among high schools. "We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career," Obama said, according to prepared remarks. According to a fact sheet circulated by the White House, winners will be announced this year.
Obama first announced the competition in his 2013 State of the Union address. Early plans gave the competition $300 million to split between school districts that outlined visions to overhaul their high schools to make them more relevant to 21st century graduates. But the program ultimately launched in November, called "Youth CareerConnect," was downgraded to $100 million, funded by Department of Labor discretionary funds.
In promoting the competition, the administration has highlighted nontraditional high schools that offer technical alternatives to standard academic fare. Obama highlighted career education most recently with a visit to New York's Pathways in Early Technology Early College High School, a public school run in partnership with IBM that aims to let students graduate with an associate's degree. Obama called the school outstanding, and advocated fully funding federal vocational education programs.
But many have criticized the administration for discovering vocational education too late. "It doesn't really fit with their emphasis," Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor whose research Duncan often cites, previously told HuffPost. "What we have so far is an endorsement of an idea and the best practices, but so far there's no money behind it."
Obama also said he would continue efforts to make college more accessible and would push to increase university completion rates. "I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential," he said.