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By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute
WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2009 — Last night the President of the United States attempted to set the nation at ease after a difficult first year in office. While the economy has improved, at least in most indicators, voters are uneasy about many components of the economy and the length of this recovery. It is weary of the tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel abroad, and is ill-at-ease with the status of health care reform.
Whether he succeeded in his first official State of the Union Address (his 2009 address wasn’t officially a State of the Union Address, but rather, an Inaugural Address) is up for discussion. However, his speech was direct, aimed to please both Republicans and Democrats, ameliorate concerns of the electorate, and an attempt to portray a more relaxed persona (perhaps too much at times) than any other presidential address in recent memory. He was confident, firm, and relaxed. This is what Barack Obama does well, and most talking heads agreed it was a good show. This morning, Virginia’s Tim Kaine said that Obama “hit the ball out of the park” while Sarah Palin suggested that "There was a lot of lecturing instead of inspiring.” Somewhere in the middle, you have the real State of the Union address.
Interestingly, if I closed my eyes and no one told me which party affiliation Obama held, I could have sworn he was a Republican. He claimed (accurately, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker) that he cut taxes for almost everyone and had not “raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person,” proposed increasing our nuclear energy capacity, clean coal technologies, opening the door to offshore drilling, and creating a $30 billion fund for small business credit. Sounds right from the Republican campaign trail.
But this is the liberal president, and his stance on health care reform will always grant him that title. Still, it is interesting that, in this economy, how the country truly has shifted to the right even though Republicans would like many to think that this Administration has veered way left. Beyond health care reform, it hasn’t. The Stimulus program was started by the Bush Administration and mostly carried through by the Obama Administration. True, he has used it to fund most of the programs he campaigned for (and to that end, this President has come through or at least tried to come through on more campaign promises, arguably, than any other President).
And while President Bush put value on education in his two terms on this office, President Obama has certainly played his political cards to use the US Department of Education as a bully pulpit for educational reform.
Earlier yesterday, the press was suggesting that education would be a major component of the address. And while there was ample discussion of the issue, it didn’t quite live up to its billing, filling only about five percent of the address’ content. That isn’t to say that the education issues weren’t pertinent or present; it’s just that there are so many critical issues facing this Administration and this Congress at the time that it perhaps is unrealistic to expect education to have so much “face” time.
The President immediately discussed the state of the economy and the difficulty facing the nation, and that his Administration and Congress acted “immediately and aggressively” to turn the economic tide. But he acknowledged that the difficulties ensue, and that, among other burdens, families are unable to “save enough to retire or help kids with college.” Because of the continued condition of America’s workforce and economy, he called for a new jobs bill to be put “on his desk without delay.”
The President did make his case of the importance of education with relation to the economy. He said that it is important to reward success rather than failure and that his Administration had launched a national competition to improve US schools. He spoke of raising student achievement, improving math and science outcomes, and turning around failing schools.
Perhaps his best line of the nights was this: “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”
To do so, he talked about the need (and requirement) to reauthorization the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) and pass a bill to revitalize the community colleges. “Still, in this economy," the President said, "a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. That's why I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.” In July of 2009, the Administration announced a $12 billion program for the American Graduation Initiative which would add 5 million new graduates by 2020 through the community college system.
He spoke of college affordability via the restructuring of the student loan system, an increase in Pell Grants, and more tax credits.
In 2009, the Administration announced it would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, which paid a fee to private banks that provide government-guaranteed loans to students through Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The Clinton Administration started the Direct Loan program in an effort to streamline the system and save taxpayer money. However, the Direct Loan system never took over the FFEL program and accounted for about 30 percent of student loans and institutions in the US. The actions of the current Administration have set a date of July 1, 2010 to move all federal loans to the Direct Loan Program, effectively eliminating the FFEL system. But with the election of a new Republican Senator in Massachusetts, some wonder if this is now up for continued debate.
The President promised increases in the Pell grant and would give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college. He also announced that income contingent loans would be capped at 10 percent of income and a 20-year forgiveness clause, because, as he said, “no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.”
President Obama mentioned that the solution to college affordability also resided on colleges and universities. “It's time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs, because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.” There was no suggestion that the Administration would put any mechanism in place to ensure that colleges and universities fall into step with his statement.
The proof will come next week when the Administration’s budget is released. During the State of the Union address, the President said that discretionary spending would be frozen for three years. However, the budget is expected to increased federal spending on education by $3 billion, a six percent increase over last year (excluding Pell Grant funding). It will total $4 billion in Congress reauthorizes some of the components of No Child Left Behind.
A President’s resolve on education is not measured by rhetoric, but by dollars. In his first year, President Obama backed up his rhetoric and put more funding into education than any other President in history, and he plans to more than match that in the coming year. One does not have to agree with his philosophy or policies on education, but he is certainly fulfilling the role of an “education president.”
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The Educational Policy Institute is a 501(c)3 corporation based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with offices in Toronto, Canada, and Melbourne, Australia. The mission of the Educational Policy Institute is to “expand educational opportunity for low-income and other historically-underrepresented students through high-level research and analysis.” For more information on EPI, visit www.educationalpolicy.org.