Obama: Strong Schools Will Help Us 'Win the Future'

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Education commanded center stage in President Obama's State of the Union address, a speech that laid the groundwork for an aggressive administration push to spare schools from the budget-cutting ax in the current Congress and to get stalled pieces of federal education law off the dime.

Seeking to strike a balance between reducing the federal deficit and keeping the nation's still-fragile economic recovery on track, Obama used the major policy address on Jan. 25 to single out education as an area where public investment must increase. Along with upgrades in the nation's infrastructure and public-private investment in cutting-edge R&D, education should be exempt from an administration-proposed freeze in federal spending because it is central to long-term recovery, the president stressed.

"Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded plane by removing its engine," said Obama. "If we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

"We agree with the president's call for long-term investments in our children and schools," AFT president Randi Weingarten said in a press release following the address. "These investments are essential to strengthen our nation, maintain a healthy democracy and help future generations succeed."

The nation must "reinvent" itself to compete successfully in a complex, global environment, President Obama stressed, and he singled out reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the centerpiece federal law for K-12 education, as an important step in that strategy. He pointed out that competitive education grants to states under the administration's Race to the Top program have been "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation [and] should be the approach we follow" as Congress overhauls ESEA.

ESEA reauthorization will provide a key test, Weingarten agreed, but it's important to take the time necessary to strike the right balance. A new ESEA must demonstrate lawmakers' ability not only to reinvent but to reaffirm the bedrock values necessary for public education's future. "While making these critical investments," she said, "we also have to protect those who are less fortunate and support those who are struggling mightily to lead a middle-class life, stay healthy, send their children to college and retire with dignity."

Shared responsibility for school success and lifelong learning also factored heavily into the State of the Union address. "Responsibility begins not in our classrooms but in our homes and communities," said Obama, who called for strong parental oversight of schoolwork, and an education approach that does not end with a high school diploma. "Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today's fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America's community colleges." Obama also called on Congress to make permanent a $10,000 tuition tax credit for higher education.

The president also signaled that the White House will not stand down when it comes to respecting the rights of students who, through no choice of their own, entered schools as the children of illegal immigrants. "Let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses and further enrich this nation," he told Congress.

It's also time for the nation to afford teachers the respect and high regard that their profession commands abroad and to encourage more talented individuals to enter the field, said Obama, who set a goal of preparing 100,000 new teachers in science, technology, engineering and math over the next decade. "To every young person listening tonight," Obama told the national audience, "if you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child—become a teacher. Your country needs you."

"We applaud the president's call for more civility and collaboration, which we believe is the best hope for achieving better lives for students and all Americans," Weingarten said. "As a nation, we do better when we put aside our differences and find common ground, and it doesn't cost a nickel to work together." [Mike Rose]

January 26, 2011