Parents, teachers and policymakers who listened to Tuesday night's State of the Union address heard an earful from President Barack Obama about his intentions to retool education's bookends by making community college free, expanding child care and increasing cybersecurity for students.
Obama mentioned few specifics about K-12 education, one of his administration's top priorities during his first term. Notably, the president mentioned not one word directly about one of his education secretary's priorities for 2015: rewriting the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush-era school accountability law. Obama also failed to mention the words teacher and testing.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech calling for overhauling No Child Left Behind. The speech marked a major policy shift for the administration, which had all but given up on a legislative fix.
No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, required that states regularly use standardized tests to measure the progress of public school students in reading and math, and to use those test results to reward or punish schools. The law included the aspirational goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
Even the law's original backers have acknowledged its flaws. Its use of raw test scores unfairly punished poorer schools, and provided perverse incentives for schools seeking high marks to exclude students with disabilities and to lower academic standards.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rewrite the law. Once he took office, he gave Congress a deadline of 2011 for rewriting the law. Despite fits and starts and the passage of a Republican version in the House, it didn't happen. Much to the chagrin of Congress, Obama and Duncan offered states waivers, giving them an escape from the law's increasing strictures in exchange for agreeing to implement Obama-preferred education reforms, such as test-based teacher evaluation.
Duncan last week told a crowd gathered at a Washington public school that the administration is seriously revisiting the idea of returning to a legislative fix, instead of waivers that could very well fade away the moment Obama leaves office.
"No Child Left Behind created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or to reward success," Duncan said. "We need to do exactly the opposite."
Duncan said the administration would call for boosting poor schools and streamlining standardized tests, but would still require them, because "parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year."
Duncan is expected to reiterate this goal at a speech Wednesday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Duncan's endorsement of a No Child Left Behind rewrite came as the new session of Congress swings into business. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will hold a hearing Wednesday on the role of standardized testing in the law. Alexander's office last week circulated draft legislation that would undo the law's key accountability provisions and lighten the standardized testing load.
Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at The Education Trust, an education advocacy and lobbying group that has supported No Child Left Behind's accountability provisions, said the group remains "unambiguous that the issues at stake in reauthorization are important to every student, parent, teacher, and community -- especially those that have too often been overlooked and underserved. And these issues need to be front and center in the national agenda."
Obama's failure to mention No Child Left Behind may have been because his administration focused its energy on K-12 education during his first term, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.
"K-12 has not been the focus of the president's state of the union proposals for several years. This is a recurring theme," Hyslop said. "So much of the push to reform K-12 came through the stimulus act through the first term with programs like Race to the Top. … All of those programs were dependent on that new money that was flowing to the department. The money has been cut off."
Others said they were pleased with the focus on different educational priorities.
“The president has laid out new plans to make college more affordable for all Americans, including a historic push to expand access to community college, improve some of our nation’s poorest performing schools, and protect our children’s privacy as we continue to introduce innovative new methods of learning," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who has been active on education issues. "These initiatives, coupled with new resources for pre-K programs, will give lower and middle-class kids the tools to get ahead, no matter what their zip code."
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), in remarks prepared for her Republican rebuttal, had even less to say about education than Obama.
This article has been updated to include Daria Hall's comment.
BEFORE YOU GO
01/21/2015 3:05 AM EST
Obama Emphasizes U.S. Security Reliance On Shaky Foreign Partners
HuffPost's Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports:
President Barack Obama used his first State of the Union address after once again ramping up U.S. military involvement in the Middle East to describe his foreign policy as a judicious mix of military force and diplomacy -- and left no doubt he believes positive engagement with the international community is key to what he called "a safer, more prosperous world."
"I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership," Obama said. "We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents."
The emphasis on diplomacy was nothing new for the Obama administration, but the president's multiple references to U.S. reliance on partners abroad invites scrutiny that may show those partners falling short of U.S. expectations.
01/21/2015 2:17 AM EST
From Nice-ish To Nasty: How 2016 GOP Contenders Responded To The State Of The Union
HuffPost's Christina Wilkie reports:
Likely Republican 2016 presidential candidates on Tuesday seemed to agree that President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address was off base. What they disagreed on was why. Responses issued by possible contenders after the hour-long speech ranged from civil, optimistic messages to angry visions of a world beset by terrorism.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave one of the sunnier Republican responses of the night -- sunnier, that is, for a put-down. "It's unfortunate President Obama wants to use the tax code to divide us -– instead of proposing reforms to create economic opportunity for every American," Bush said in a statement. "We can do better."
Mitt Romney, Bush's potential rival for the backing of the GOP establishment in 2016, also was measured in his response, calling the speech "disappointing" and "a missed opportunity to lead."
From there, the tenor of the rhetoric intensified.
01/21/2015 1:37 AM EST
Obama State Of The Union Address Highlights Battle For The Middle Class
More than anything, President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address signaled a fresh battle for the hearts and minds of America's beleaguered middle class -- and Republicans weren't having any of it.
Obama mentioned the middle class at least seven times and touted "working" people at least nine as he rolled out proposals to offer new child tax credits, raise the minimum wage, extend paid family leave and make college more affordable. He mentioned "families" 16 times.
But well before Obama's speech was over, House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office was firing off responses, declaring that Obama's "regulatory onslaught squeezes the very middle-class families he claims to be trying to help," and that he was threatening to veto what Republicans consider to be jobs bills.
01/21/2015 1:00 AM EST
GOP Mentions Immigration In State of The Union Rebuttal...But Only In Spanish
HuffPost's Elise Foley reports:
Earlier Tuesday, it appeared the GOP's Spanish-language rebuttal to the State of the Union would be exactly the same as the English-language one, just delivered by a Latino congressman instead of a senator who wants to make English the official U.S. language.
But when the speeches were delivered in the evening, there was at least one major difference -- one key to many Spanish-language audiences. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), delivering the official Republican rebuttal, did not utter the word "immigration" once. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) not only mentioned the issue, but said Republicans want to work on it with President Barack Obama.
"We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, modernize legal immigration and strengthen our economy. In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these, now we ask him to collaborate with us to get it done," Curbelo said in the address, translated by liberal group American Bridge (and checked by The Huffington Post).
01/21/2015 12:46 AM EST
Jason Chaffetz: Taxing Inheritance Is 'One Of The Most Immoral Things You Can Do'
HuffPost's Ryan Grim reports:
House and Senate Republicans are rejecting President Barack Obama’s suggestion to reform tax code that allows heirs to inherit extreme amounts of wealth largely tax-free.
“Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth,” Obama said Tuesday night during his annual State of the Union address. “We can use that money to help more families pay for child care and send their kids to college.”
A variety of tax strategies exist to shield much of an inheritance from taxation. And that, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), is as it should be. Chaffetz moved quickly from talking points to genuine anger in responding to the president’s proposal. “That’s a non-starter. The audacity, that he thinks the government has a right to people’s money? He wants to transfer wealth," Chaffetz said. "It’s one of the most immoral things you can do, is try to steal somebody’s inheritance, to steal it away from their family.”
01/21/2015 12:40 AM EST
Dreamers At State Of The Union Hope Obama Continues To Push Forward On Immigration
HuffPost's Elise Foley reports:
The White House and members of Congress often make political statements through their choice of guests for the State of the Union. There is no place that gets more attention than the first lady's box, where the guest list serves as an illustration of the president's priorities for the upcoming year. For the past few years, that list has included Dreamers: Alan Aleman attended as one of the first lady's guests in 2013. In 2014, it was Avila. And this year, 21-year-old Dreamer Ana Zamora was one of Michelle Obama's guests. Other undocumented immigrants, some of them Dreamers, also attended this year, as guests of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).
Even in a speech in which Obama said the word "immigration" only twice -- plus "immigrant" and "immigrants" once each -- the presence of those guests was meant to send a message that Democrats are committed to programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows Dreamers to remain in the country. House Republicans voted last week to end that policy, along with elements of the measures Obama announced in November, such as protections for parents.
Read the full story here.
01/21/2015 12:04 AM EST
State Of The Union Watchers Give Obama High Marks In Instant Poll
HuffPost's Ariel Levy reports:
Americans who watched President Barack Obama's State of the Union address largely approved, giving him better marks than they did for last year's speech, according to instant polling conducted by CNN.
Positive ratings from State of the Union watchers are the rule, not the exception. CNN found Obama getting high marks in all five annual State of the Union speeches they previously polled (the network didn't conduct a post-State of the Union poll in 2012). Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also received largely positive ratings.
Eighty-one percent of viewers had a somewhat positive or very positive opinion of the 2015 State of the Union, according to CNN -- up from 76 percent in 2014, and in line with ratings for Obama's speeches in 2011 and 2013.
01/21/2015 12:01 AM EST
Obama Gives Push To Restoring Voting Rights Act: 'The Right To Vote Is Sacred'
HuffPost's Jennifer Bendery reports:
President Barack Obama pushed Congress Tuesday night to restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even though Republicans signaled last week they have no intention of doing so.
"We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American," Obama said during his State of the Union address.
01/20/2015 11:17 PM EST
Obama Warns Lawmakers: Stay Away From Iran Talks
HuffPost's Ali Watkins reports:
President Obama warned lawmakers in his State of the Union address on Tuesday against interfering with his administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran, promising to veto any new sanctions legislation that makes it to his desk.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails -- alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said. “It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
Read the full story here.
01/20/2015 11:15 PM EST
Howard Fineman: Joni Ernst Didn’t Say Much In Her SOTU Response
Howard Fineman joins HuffPost Live to weigh in on Sen. Joni Ernst’s Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union. Watch: