GMMB Analyzes Education and the 2015 State of the Union

GMMB Analyzes Education and the 2015 State of the Union

Education was a prominent topic in President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday, January 20, 2015. He repeatedly connected education issues to the “middle class economics” he said are essential to continuing the country’s emergence from a historic recession. The President opened his remarks by characterizing the first decade and a half of the 21st century as a grim era, defined by terror, wars, and “a vicious recession [that] spread across our nation and the world.” Seeking to capitalize on a sense of momentum highlighted by his recent executive actions on immigration, climate change, new diplomatic relationship with Cuba, and improving poll numbers, President Obama opened his remarks saying, “Tonight, we turn the page.” Still, the president faces a Republican-controlled Congress, which has resolved to oppose his agenda. So it is unclear how much of his new agenda—including its education provisions—will ever be enacted.

Social Media Highlights

From the start of President Obama’s address through the conclusion of the official Republican response by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, more than 2.6 million tweets were sent related to the SOTU. According to Twitter, the president’s proposal to offer two years of free community college to all was the most-tweeted about speech topic (ranking above equal pay, climate change, tax reform and healthcare).

In the last 24 hours, more than 50,000 people tweeted about community college and higher education, and 12,000 people used the #FreeCommunityCollege hashtag. While most tweets were positive—highlighting the benefits of expanding access to higher education and reducing student debt—some lawmakers, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, were less supportive or questioned how such a proposal would be financed.

@BarackObama: “Free community college is possible—and I want to spread that idea all across America.” —President Obama #SOTU (4,147 retweets)
@SenRandPaul: Middle class economics? Wonder if you’ll learn about that in free community college? #sotu (1,426 retweets)

Speech Highlights

Education (General)

It took the President just 1 minute and 24 seconds to mention education for the first time, when he said that “more of our kids [are] graduating than ever before.” It was one of the statistics he cited to buttress his case for 2014 as “a breakthrough year for America.”

The President made the case for the restorative power of education with a story about Rebekah and Ben Erler, a Minneapolis couple pointed to as emblematic of the American spirit and of the need for the country to prioritize “middle class economics.”

Relating how the Erlers managed to weather their deteriorating financial situation after the acceleration of the recession that began in 2008, the President said Ben took on odd jobs, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. “Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career… got a better job, and then a raise.”

Even in the depths of the recession, the President said, “We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.”

President Obama mentioned making student loans more affordable as one area where he believes important work remains to be done. Returning to the Erlers as his proxies for middle class Americans, the President said, “Because families like Rebekah’s still need our help. She and Ben are working as hard as ever, but have to forego vacations and a new car so they can pay off student loans and save for retirement.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who has called for getting rid of the Education Department, did not directly address education issues in the official Republican response. Instead, she focused on opposing the reach of the Obama administration. Republicans say the administration has overstepped its bounds through policies like waivers for states from No Child Left Behind requirements. “We’ll work to correct executive overreach,” she said. “We’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget—with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes, like the President has proposed.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-TN), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, tweeted: “Unfortunately, much of what I heard from POTUS are partisan proposals that have no chance of becoming law.”

Higher Education

The President reiterated his proposal—previewed in campaign-style events around the country in recent weeks and widely panned by Republicans—for two years of free community college to qualified students.

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education,” the President said. “Two-in-three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future. That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”

The President said 40 percent of college-going students choose community college, and praised it as a vehicle for educational attainment for young people, older people, veterans, and single parents transitioning back into the job market. He cited programs in Tennessee and Chicago as evidence that free community college has bipartisan potential. “I want to spread that idea all across America,” the President said, “so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

The President did not say how he would fund the plan, which has drawn criticism regarding the federal government’s proper role in public education. Community colleges are primarily affiliated with state and local governments.

President Obama made an almost parenthetical mention of student loan affordability, an issue that has roiled opinions in education, state, and federal policy circles in recent years. “I want to work with this Congress to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams,” he said.

Republicans in Congress have signaled that they hope to look at issues of student aid and affordability.

The speech focused on postsecondary access and equity, but said little about the importance of degree or credential attainment. The President spoke briefly about the importance of education to workforce readiness and the strength of the economy, crediting Vice President Joe Biden’s efforts to “update our job training system” and “connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics.” He also made a pointed ask for “more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships — opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education.”

Early Learning

The President did not press for universal Pre-K as he has in previous State of the Union addresses. Instead, he highlighted tax proposals that would assist working parents in paying for child care, again, as part of his central theme of promoting “middle class economics.” The President said that Rebekah and Ben Erlers pay more in childcare for their two sons than they do for their mortgage. “It’s time,” the president said, “that we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

President Obama pushed to triple the maximum Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to $3,000 for each child under 5. According to a White House fact sheet, the plan also would expand income eligibility for the tax credit to families making up to $120,000, with an additional $500 per child credit available to families with two working parents. This would be paid for through increases in capital gains taxes and fees imposed on large banks.

The President’s plan to make preschool available to all 4-year-olds, proposed in 2013, has not moved forward in Congress. Many governors—Democrats and Republicans—have advanced early learning efforts. The Obama administration has incentivized states through competitive grants—like the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge—and hosted a White House Summit on Early Childhood Education. A December 10, 2014 event brought together educators, elected officials, foundations, and corporate partners to announce $1 billion in public and private commitments to support early learning.


The President’s speech was remarkably light on references to front-burner, K-12 education issues such as ESEA reauthorization, Common Core State Standards and assessments, teacher evaluations, and persistent achievement gaps. The SOTU did not once reference teachers, and the President’s comments about the importance of education included:
In previous eras of prosperity, “We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the internet—tools they needed to go as far as their effort will take them. That’s what middle-class economics is.”

To ensure the country’s long-term competitiveness, “We have to make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.”
“America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more.”

Additional Issues

President Obama briefly referenced education in connection with the other issues:

Technology: “I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”

Cyber Security: “I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information.”

Immigration: “Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”

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