In his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, President Obama called for more investment in education, innovation, and infrastructure—setting up a showdown between his administration and Republicans in Congress who are seeking billions of dollars in cuts to domestic spending.
Addressing a nation still reeling from the tragic shooting rampage in Tucson earlier this month that targeted U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and left six people dead, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Obama called for a members of both political parties to work together in addressing the challenges facing the nation.
“Each of us is a part of something greater—something more consequential than party or political preference,” the president said. “We are part of the American family.” Breaking with tradition, members of Congress adopted a bipartisan seating arrangement that saw many political adversaries sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in an unusual demonstration of unity.
But the spirit of compromise might be short-lived once lawmakers get back to business, as there are stark differences in how each political party views the solutions to the nation’s challenges—which include steep budget deficits, aging infrastructure, stagnant academic achievement, and competition from other nations for 21st-century jobs.
How these differences play out will have important implications for U.S. schools and colleges, as well as their students.
See what Obama says about teachers on eSN.TV
Recognizing the need to scale back government spending, Obama called for a five-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending. But he wants to exempt spending on education and research from this freeze.
“I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without,” he said. “But … cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”
Repeating a line from a speech he gave at Forsyth Technical Community College last month, the president called this “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” He noted that China now boasts the world’s fastest computer, and South Koreans have faster internet access than Americans.
To compete in the new global economy, “we need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” Obama said. “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”
He said he would propose a budget for fiscal year 2012 that invests more money in biomedical research, information technology, and clean energy technology—“an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people,” he said.
On education, the president will ask Congress to extend a $10,000 college tax credit and pay for thousands of new science and math teachers as part of a broad rewrite of the nation’s education system.
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The tax break for students originally was included in the economic stimulus bill passed shortly after Obama took office. In his State of the Union address, Obama reiterated his call for Congress to make it permanent.
Obama also called for 100,000 more science and technology teachers by the end of the decade. And he wants Congress to replace the No Child Left Behind law with new measures giving more flexibility to schools.
The president asked for more federal investment in infrastructure as well, saying: “Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.”
“This isn’t just about a faster internet and fewer dropped calls,” he continued. “It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. … It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device, a student who can take classes with a digital textbook, or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”
To help pay for these initiatives, Obama wants to eliminate billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to oil companies, get rid of corporate tax loopholes that allow some companies to skate by without paying U.S. taxes, and roll back the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
“Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break,” the president said. “It’s not a matter of punishing their success; it’s about promoting America’s success.”
Some of Obama’s proposals will face opposition from members of his own party.
Touting the success of his administration’s Race to the Top (RttT) program in spurring widespread education reforms in states across the nation, Obama said RttT “should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”
That might not resonate with some Democrats, who hear from school leaders they are concerned that a shift from formula-based funding to more competitive grant programs will leave many poorer school districts behind.
But it’s the Republicans now controlling the House of Representatives who present the biggest roadblock to Obama’s proposals.
“We face a crushing burden of debt,” said Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan in the official Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union speech. “The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.”
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House Republicans have passed a resolution setting appropriations for the rest of the year at 2008 pre-recession levels, as part of a pledge to cut $100 billion from the budgets of domestic U.S. government agencies.
The vote is largely symbolic, because the actual cuts would have to be made in appropriations bills that would have to clear the Senate, where Democrats still hold a majority. However, it sets up a showdown in which members of both parties will have to convene to hammer out a compromise—and education might not be spared from the cuts that result.
“There are no sacred cows,” said newly appointed House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
Any cuts to federal spending on education or infrastructure would come at a particularly bad time for local communities, many of which already face the prospect of steep cuts in state funding.
A report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, released last month, says the fiscal crisis reshaping the level of services that government can deliver is likely to last at least another three years for many states.
So far, budget deficits are anticipated for at least 15 states, the report said. Among the hardest-hit states are California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.
In releasing his latest budget proposal, California Gov. Jerry Brown told his state’s lawmakers that “the year ahead will demand courage and sacrifice” as the state faces a deficit projected to hit $25.4 billion over the next 18 months. His proposal combines spending cuts to Medi-Cal, in-home services for the elderly, and higher education with a five-year extension of income, sales, and vehicle taxes.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanded shutting 20 percent of state agencies as part of “radical reform” to pull his state out its fiscal crisis. And Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey skipped a $3.1 billion payment to the state’s pension system in a push to cut benefits for public workers, while proposing higher employee contributions and a boost in the retirement age from 62 to 65.
Public education in Texas, meanwhile, is facing billions of dollars in proposed budget cuts that would include slashing arts education, pre-kindergarten programs, and teacher incentive pay as lawmakers take on a massive deficit with the promise of no new taxes.
Texas lawmakers got their first glimpse of what the next state budget might look like on Jan. 18, including a $5 billion cut to public schools, as Republican Gov. Rick Perry and his supporters were dancing at an inaugural celebration.
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Texas is facing a $15 billion revenue shortfall, and few corners of state government were spared in the draft proposal for the next two years. The Texas Constitution requires a balanced budget, and Republican leaders have vowed not to raise taxes.
Perry’s budget proposal would shutter four community colleges and generally eliminate financial aid for incoming freshmen and new students. The Texas Grants scholarship program would drop by more than 70,000 students over the next two years.
“It’s a catastrophe. No financial aid for kids to go to college. No pre-kindergarten for kids to learn their numbers and their letters. Health and human services slashed,” said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. “No Texan can be proud of this.”