President Barack Obama spent considerable time in his State of the Union address Tuesday on the current state of public education — with particular focus on pre-school education — and requested that Congress alter the Higher Education Act.
Obama also trumpeted the gains made by the Race to the Top program, and vowed that more would be done improve the high school-to-employment pipeline.
“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” Obama said during his address.
“And four years ago, we started Race to the Top, a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, all for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year,” Obama continued. “Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. “I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. My administration will release a new ‘College Scorecard’ that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
Obama’s plan has met with favorable initial reactions from several education outposts, including national nonprofit StudentsFirst, whose founder and CEO Michelle Rhee praised Obama for using education to continue the nation’s recovery.
"I am encouraged that President Obama is talking about our education system as a key economic engine that will help drive our country’s recovery and strengthen our middle class. Unlike many of our international counterparts, Americans for far too long have treated our education system as a social issue and not an economic priority,’ Rhee said. “President Obama knows the transformative power of an excellent education — our nation's great equalizer which helps many escape the cycle of poverty — and we agree that America's economic recovery can be hastened if we focus on preparing today's kids for tomorrow's workforce."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also weighed in by echoing similar praises for Obama’s path toward recovery based on strengthening the education sector.
“President Obama laid out a bold blueprint to strengthen our nation by making sure every child has access to high-quality early childhood education programs, by expanding high school opportunities to be more hands on and more focused on thinking, rather than testing, like the P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, and by making college more affordable and accessible,” Weingarten said, in part, via a statement released by the AFT. “Our love of freedom also demands that we do everything in our power to keep our citizens safe from gun violence in our schools and communities while ensuring the sanctity of the Second Amendment. And we will fight to make sure gun safety measures get the votes they deserve. We were reminded of that solemn commitment tonight by the presence of Sandy Hook teachers Kaitlin Roig and Natalie Hammond.
“As a democracy, our destiny as a nation is in our hands, for we are the people,” Weingarten added. “We cannot cut our way to shared prosperity and opportunity. President Obama has laid out his vision to ensure that all Americans have a clear path to the American dream. It is now time for Congress to act.”
The reaction Obama has received for his education platform differs greatly compared to the reception Governor Tom Corbett received for recent budget address, as several parties have lambasted his plan — including officials with the locally-based Education Law Center, who claim that Corbett’s plan unfairly distributes to wealthier schools a disproportionate cut of the $90 million added to the Basic Education funding.
"We saw this in 2011 with the massive cuts to basic education and we saw it last year when those cuts were sustained," said Education Law Center Executive Director Rhonda Brownstein. "The poorest communities and schools were hit the hardest. The governor's latest proposal follows the same script: The rich get richer."
Democratic State Representative Jordan Harris said Corbett’s plan to add $1 billion in education aid effectively masks the problems facing public education and will have an adverse effect down the road.
“This budget neglects, in many ways, the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth: our children and our elderly. Tying public education to liquor privatization is just wrong. While the Governor estimates a one-time payment of $1 billion in aid to our schools, he is in essence creating his own stimulus package that would do nothing but leave us in the same position we are in today and will continue to kick the educational can down the road,” Harris said. “This is nothing but a Band-Aid for our education funding problem, when in fact we need surgery.
“Additionally, while Governor Corbett is proposing the privatization of both the State Liquor Stores and Pennsylvania Lottery,” Harris continued, “but has not cited any sources through which the Commonwealth will recuperate these lost streams of revenue.”
Fellow State Representative Cherelle L. Parker, chairwoman of the Philadelphia County Delegation and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said like the previous two years, Corbett is introducing a budget that puts the interests of wealthy corporations ahead of the needs of public education, people's health and taxpayers.
"Like every year, the governor's proposal is only the beginning of the months-long process of finalizing the state budget," Parker said. "Unfortunately, we're not off to a good start for Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. This budget does not look to the most reliable revenue to fund the items he is proposing, nor does it recognize the needs of our residents or the opportunities available to our state."