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State of the Union Puts Forth An Ambitious and Challenging Agenda For Obama 2.0

By Charles Barone, Director of Policy

In last night's State of the Union speech President Obama made education a central theme and staked out several new education policies he aims to pursue in his second term.

Two of the biggest news items were: 1) Pre-school and 2) The value, relative to the costs, of a college education.

On pre-school, Obama proclaimed, "Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America." The two key watchwords here, for wonks and politicos alike, are "high-quality" and "every."

And, here’s why:

Making high-quality pre-school available to every child is a worthy goal. But it's an expensive proposition and it's hard to see big new investments by the federal government when education is already facing cuts in the upcoming sequestration and appropriations fights. Congressman Rob Andrews (D-NJ), as quoted in Politics K-12, succinctly cut to the chase when he said, "I think it’s really smart, I think it's a doable" idea” and then, in seeming recognition of the gap between the President’s aspirations and available federal funds added: “I think it's not going to be a lot of new money."

Another problem is party politics. Republicans tend to favor even less of a federal role in early childhood than they do for K-12 and higher education. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-VA), Chair of the Higher Education Subcommittee, said, "States are doing fine on pre-K . They don't need the federal government stepping in."

This is not true by a long shot. Some states don't even have kindergarten let alone pre-K programs.

Quality is also an issue. President Obama clearly recognizes its importance because he made sure to make "high-quality" part and parcel of his universal pre-school proposal. In "Four Reasons Pre-K Faces An Uphill Climb," Andy Rotherham's #3 reason is: “There is no center to hold. The basic battle lines are people who think expanding access to pre-K is paramount and those who think improving quality in pre-K is more important.” (The other 3 reasons are valid and worth reading as well.)

Sara Mead, the go-to source on all things early childhood, was a little more nuanced when she made this comment:

"Ultimately, I think that significant learning deficits with which poor kids enter pre-k and the political demand that public pre-k investments produce significant evidence of learning results mean that an emphasis on higher quality programs is both better for kids and more likely to be sustainable over time. But the alternative perspective should not be summarily dismissed here." Read the whole piece for more.

The political elephants in the room on this, especially for Democrats, are the competing interests of teachers unions. In his comments on the State of the Union, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel praised "investing in early childhood." But, in contrast to Obama, he was not careful to preface that investment as having to be "high quality." In fact, the word "quality" appears nowhere in Van Roekel's statement.

In all fairness, in Van Roekel's February 8th letter to Obama specifying what he wanted to hear in the State of Union address, early education had quality all over it. But therein lies the rub. More public school early childhood educators means more NEA dues-paying members. That doesn't mean Van Roekel wasn't being sincere about the need for quality. But one need look no further than the California Class Size Reduction debacle of the late 1990's (short story: Quality lost. Big time. And poor kids were the biggest losers), of which the California Teachers Union was the driving force, to see what can happen when principles regarding quality go up against the politics of expanded union membership and increased union revenue.

The other big news items in Obama's SOTU speech were college costs, value, and performance. Obama made some bold statements regarding the need to address rising college costs and take the value and performance of colleges into account as part of accreditation and access to public funds. Predictably, lobbyists for the higher education sector were less than enthusiastic. President Bill Clinton barely got anywhere just trying to ratchet down the whopping percentage (as much as 60% or more) colleges and universities take off the top for overhead on federal research grants. Ask your favorite academic whether they think they're getting their money's worth on that deal.

Another good read on this topic is Bob Shireman's recent HuffPo piece on college lobbyists’ success in punching gaping loopholes in the governance of California's community college system and how much (not) it really matters that more than one-third of California community colleges have violated accreditation standards in recent years. (That's six times the national average.) As Shireman notes, these accountability evasive systems are "preventing progress in improving student access and success.

However, there is an immediate pay-off from the President's agenda on this. First thing this morning, the White House posted a "college scorecard," which is an interactive tool that provides users information about a college or university’s costs and value. Omar Lopez, our Director of Teacher Policy and infographic wunderkind, worked up ratings for some of DFER staffs' alma maters which you can see here.

Note that the scorecard isn't about just cost or performance. You get to look at both. For example, DFER’s Director of Operations Brienne Bellavita went to the most expensive college, Rochester, of those Lopez looked at. But Rochester also has the highest graduation rate and lowest loan default rate. So it's expensive but Brienne got a degree and job to show for it, which she's incredibly good at

On both early childhood and the holding schools accountable for the cost and value of a college education, Obama certainly has his work cut out for him. Reauthorizing the higher education act and changing laws and policies around early education that are addressed in multiple programs, across agencies is a tall order. Everyone knows that Head Start and child care support pre-K and are headquartered at HHS. But far fewer people know that a significant chunk of Title I funds (almost 20%) is already spent on pre-school. See last week’s posts on where ESEA reauthorization is at.

In addition, there were other important things in the speech, particularly a new Race to the Top for high school reform and an effort to link secondary and postsecondary education with high-skills, high-wage jobs, especially in Science, Technology, and Engineering (STEM). Those provide a whole other set of policy and legislative challenges. I’ll explore those issues at a later date.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.