Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

State of the Union Address: A Mixed Response

Charlotte Williams's picture

President Barak Obama’s State of the Union address has drawn a mixed response from players in the education community. I imagine all appreciate the president’s focus on education as an important issue, and approve of his connecting it to broader American self-interest with talk of jobs and competitiveness in worldwide markets. Likewise, few would disagree with Obama’s emphasis on long-term investment in education, parental involvement in children's learning, the shared responsibility of schools and their communities, recruiting more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers, and the need to overhaul No Child Left Behind. It’s also refreshing that he pointed out teachers are the most important school-based factor in a child’s success; he emphasized the greater importance of parents (and though research more specifically shows the influence of socio-economic status, these two categories are related). His talk of curbing the reach of the federal government was also encouraging to many, although his actual policy emphases related to Race to the Top and other competitive funding measures seem to counter this rhetoric.

Many are concerned with federal oversight of schools, as well as competitive allocation of funds. In a statement responding to the State of the Union Address, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten discussed the need to protect children from struggling segments of the population. Likewise, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel expressed his continued concern that “competitive grants such as Race to the Top create winners and losers among our students” and stressed the need to “open new opportunities [for] minority children and those in low-income families.” Washington Post editors pointed out various other controversial points about Obama’s claims about Race to the Top success, including arguments that criteria for funding were off-base, controversy about which states deserved to win, and assertions that it is premature to praise Race to the Top outcomes since plans are just now getting under way and the impact will take years to measure. For his part, Rep. John Kline (R-MN) issued a statement saying Obama’s State of the Union request for additional funding for Race to the Top “is especially offensive in light of the federal government’s failure to keep its promise to fund special education. No one can justify funding new federal programs at a time when unfunded federal mandates are increasing the strain on states’ already-strapped budgets.”

Corresponding to these concerns, various education players have emphasized the need for adequate educational funding (including the National School Boards Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the American Association of School Administrators, who especially emphasize funding for low-income students) and for finding the correct role of the federal government (like Van Roekel and Kline) in ESEA reauthorization.

And a final point: Various media pundits have commented on—and in some cases made fun of—Obama’s constant emphasis on pointing out U.S. shortcomings in relation to other countries. An important component of this critique deals with the unit of comparison. When it comes to fairly straightforward issues like infrastructure development, such critiques may be warranted and easily corrected; however, such comparisons on more fundamental, highly culturally-dependent issues like education can be unfair false analogies. Each country has unique dynamics that go into its education system and outcomes, and the efficacy of these outcomes is likewise evaluated differently country-to-country. For example, comparing a largely ethnically homogenous population with an authoritarian government and cultural emphases on certain educational traits like China to the U.S.—an ethnically diverse, free-market, democratic nation dealing with a large portion of students who do not fluently speak the national language, for example, seems a pretty straightforward apples to oranges comparison. Since it is clear Obama does not want us to start looking like China in these other ways, such a comparison seems less than helpful.