Obama’s 7 State of the Union talking points. No. 3: Early childhood education

President Obama will deliver his sixth State of the Union address on Jan. 28. Over the next few days, The Fix is previewing Obama's major themes and challenges in the speech, focusing on one issue a day leading up to Tuesday's address. Today's talking point is education. Click here for talking point #2 on saving the planet and talking point #1 on defending Obamacare.

When it comes to education, President Obama is likely to emphasize two themes that snugly fit into his larger goal of  addressing income inequality: early childhood education and college access and affordability.

In the 2013 State of the Union, Obama pitched the idea of universal quality preschool for every 4-year-old in the country, a bold plan that would create partnerships with the states to add a year to the nation’s public education system at an estimated cost of $75 billion.


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about college education at the White House in Washington January 16, 2014. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama met with representatives of colleges, universities and philanthropic groups at the White House on Thursday to talk about steps to get more low-income students to attend college. The event is part of Obama's pledge to try to narrow the gap between rich and poor, a politically popular theme that is expected to dominate his State of the Union address on January 28. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION)

Congressional Democrats built that idea into proposed legislation, but the bills haven’t advanced much in the House or the Senate. Still, 30 states increased funding for early childhood education and Congress pumped an additional $1 billion into Early Head Start, the federal program for low-income babies and toddlers up to age 3.

Obama is expected to try to capi­tal­ize on that momentum and the bipartisan support for early childhood education, and to argue again about the need to expose low-income 4-year-olds to quality preschool as a way to close the achievement gap and help those students begin to climb the economic ladder out of poverty.

Making college more affordable for everyone and more accessible to low-income students is another theme the president and the Department of Education have been stressing in recent months, and the president is expected to hammer this idea as a means to address income inequality.

Obama held an unusual gathering Jan. 16 at the White House with leaders from more than 100 colleges and universities to talk about ways to get more low-income students into college and see them through to graduation day.

They discussed how to prepare more low-income high school students for college, to match students with the most appropriate school and to make tuition and fees more affordable for low and middle-income students.

The administration has been working to create a ratings system to help students and parents make better-informed decisions about which colleges and universities to attend, but that proposed system is still a work in progress. Some colleges and universities are opposed, including several whose representatives attended the White House summit.

It is unlikely that the president will announce bold new initiatives or programs when it comes to K-12 education. That’s because most states are already implementing many new education policies favored by the Obama administration, from teacher evaluation systems to new math and reading standards known as the Common Core. There is a sense inside the administration that states and school districts have their hands full with these wholesale changes and need time to carry them out.

Supporters of the Common Core hope the president does not mention the new standards in his address. That’s because critics of the standards say they were concocted by the federal government, even though they were created by  groups representing governors and state education officials. For the last two years in the State of the Union address, Obama has boasted about the standards’ speedy adoption by 45 states and the District of Columbia, fueling the critics who mock them as “Obamacore” and say they represent federal overreach.  Asked what the president should say this year about the Common Core, Michael Petrilli of the right-leaning Fordham Institute think tank, which backs the standards, had a quick response.“Nothing,” he said.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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