Fat SOTUesday: Benjamin Riley’s Take on the SOTU Address

February 13, 2013

I have a confession to make.

I did not watch the President’s State of the Union speech last night.

I have not even read the transcript.

Am I a bad policy director? Yes, yes I am.

On the other hand, it’s not my fault that the President inconveniently scheduled his big speech laying out his domestic policy agenda for 2013 the same night as Fat Tuesday, or that my friend decided to throw a party to celebrate Mardi Gras complete with king cake, the biggest bag of beads I’ve ever seen, and a live seven-piece band. Granted, it is partially my fault that I brought some “moonshine” in a mason jar sippy cup to the aforementioned party, but given that people were knocking down “picklebacks” – shots of rye with a pickle juice chaser – anyway, the same result was inevitable.

With those caveats in mind, here are three points to consider regarding the President’s education agenda for this year:

1. The Administration is clearly focused on the “tails” of the P-20 education spectrum. The big push last night was to expand early childhood education for middle and low-income families. The priority is to make Head Start more accountable and expand high-quality options. At the later end of schooling, the Administration wants to improve “career tech” and tie federal finance aid to colleges to student outcomes (though exactly what outcomes remains a bit hazy). There was one intriguing K12 proposal: for the next Race to the Top, the President proposed a grant program for high school curricula, thus ensuring an already tepidly supported program will become even more radioactive with Republicans. But entrepreneurs should pay attention if this proposal gets traction.

2. The general lack of discussion of K12 policy is indicative of ED moving to a full “implementation phase” of waivers and Race to the Top. Admittedly, this is important, but for those of us who work in policy advocacy, there’s not much space to do anything interesting around this. That said, there continues to be a surprising amount of interest on Capitol Hill in reauthorizing ESEA – I learned earlier this week that Speaker Boehner is giving the green light to reintroduce the piecemeal House bills and bring them to the floor. Does this mean ESEA will actually be reauthorized in our lifetime? No, but policymakers will continue to lay down markers nonetheless.

3. As always, it’s important to consider the education agenda as merely one piece of a much bigger domestic-policy pie. All of the action in Congress right now is focused on immigration and gun control, which will likely suck up most of the major policy oxygen for the next 4-6 months. This will make it challenging for the Administration to, say, build a coalition of support to enact radical reform of Head Start. On that front, the opening salvo was fired last night from Rep. Virginia Foxx, who said, and I am not making this up, “States are doing fine on pre-K, they don’t need the federal government stepping in.” The point is that most of the priorities outlined in a State of the Union fail to become law, so it’s good to keep expectations tempered.

Hey, speaking of immigration reform, how about that Senator Marc Rubio? I am genuinely horrified that I missed this incredible moment that should have all us firing up our DVR for the Daily Show tonight: Check out “Water Bottle Gate” on the CBS News site.

For less snarky, more substantive reactions to the SOTU, I recommend the always terrific PoliticsK12 blog and Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog (which has great links to early childhood policy research).