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State of the Union Falls Flat on Educational Equity
President Obama presented few new ideas on educational equity in his State of the Union address. His boldest proposal was expanding preschool education for low and moderate-income families. The president’s strong support for early childhood education programs that put children on a path toward academic success is important for low-income children and children of color because they are the least likely to be enrolled in preschool programs. The president’s proposal, however, appears to be aimed solely at providing access to preschool, not at improving the quality of those programs. For low-income children, quality can be a bigger problem than access. But, few details yet exist. We hope as the White House expands the details of this program, it will address not just access but quality as well.
Last year during his State of the Union address, President Obama put colleges and universities “on notice,” warning that taxpayers would not continue to subsidize skyrocketing tuition costs, especially without any promise of return on the investment. This year, the president toned it down a little, urging Congress to include affordability and value in the eligibility requirements for some financial-aid programs, presumably those that are campus-based. He also called for the development of an alternative accreditation process that would make federal aid flow more efficiently to institutions that keep tuition down and quality up. And, he touted a White House developed scorecard students and families can use to compare college costs and outcomes.
We would have liked the president to say more explicitly that any reforms to the federal financial-aid system must include “demonstrated success in serving low-income students” — as he called for last year — as well as affordability and value. For example, postsecondary institutions should have to disclose their graduation rates for Pell students, and such data should be reflected on the White House’s scorecard. Doing so provides assurance to taxpayers that schools accepting taxpayer dollars to educate low-income students are doing what they are supposed to do — help students graduate in a timely manner and prepare them for life beyond college.
The president also touched on high school reform, proposing what sounds like a Race to the Top for those high schools focused on retooling to prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. He also called for career and technical education programs to better align with the needs of employers. High-quality, rigorous career pathways in fields like engineering and biotechnology can complement students’ academic coursework and better prepare them for postsecondary education or training. But in reality, many schools continue to track and under-educate poor students and students of color, leading them into pathways that do not provide broad options after they graduate. An emphasis on these programs to the neglect of getting all high schools to adopt high-quality college- and career-ready standards for all students would be a giant step backward for educational equity.
The president’s State of the Union address did not put educational equity at the center of his administration’s education agenda. But, there are details yet to learn. We hope that as those details are developed, they will include more focus on equity for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners than we heard on Tuesday.