Obama Says Investment in Education Key to Stronger Middle Class

The teachers and students standing and applauding alongside Michelle Obama during the State of the Union speech on Tuesday are the faces of President Obama’s priorities when it comes to public education.

There’s the Oklahoma teacher who works with the littlest learners, the got-a-good-job graduate of a green-energy community college program, the pre-med student born in Mexico, the teenage scientist, and the teacher who survived an event of horrifying violence in her school. They are the living, breathing proof that public investments in early education, affordable higher education, and STEM programs work, and that Congress must act quickly on the issues of immigration and gun control.

In his speech, Obama laid out plans to strengthen the country’s middle class, the backbone of the nation. Key pieces include: protecting teachers from layoffs, making high-quality preschool or early education programs available to every child in America, the development of more secondary school science programs and career pathways, and new “College Scorecards” that will rate colleges on their price and value.

“President Barack Obama set a strong tone and outlined a common-sense agenda to strengthen the middle class,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We agree with the president that making education and students a priority is an economic imperative. The president knows that the road to economic prosperity and helping those aspiring to join the middle class runs directly through our nation’s public schools.”

Like Obama suggested last night, the road starts early. “People have realized that some students start out behind when they start kindergarten, and they don’t ever really catch up,” said Julie Bullard, an early education expert and Montana Professor of the Year in 2011, to NEA Today last year. “But a lot of research shows that making a difference in the early years has real potential to save money and enhance the lives of children.”

Every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 — as early-education graduates are less likely to become teen parents, rely on social service programs, or get jailed. “We know this works,” said Obama. “Let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

But Obama also acknowledged that the road is often cut short for too many poor and middle-class Americans who can’t afford the skyrocketing cost of college tuition. Last year, the total amount of student-loan debt in America topped an unbelievable $1 trillion. On average, each college graduate owes $26,000 — but many owe much, much more. “I will die owing this money,” said retired Missouri special educator Nancy Brunner, who owes a whopping $170,000-and-growing in student loans.

But when students don’t get that expensive degree, they often don’t get that well-paid job either. Obama proposed that more high schools provide job training and associate’s degrees, so that students could transition from high school into jobs in critical industries, like computers. At the same time, he asked Congress to link their financial support for specific campuses to the degree that those colleges are making efforts to be affordable.

Video: President Obama – ‘Let’s Give Our Kids That Chance’

Obama also called on Congress to take action to prevent impending across-the-board budget cuts, which could devastate public education programs; to work quickly on immigration reform; pass the Paycheck Fairness Act; and to take a vote (and fast) on gun control proposals that the American people have pleaded with them to consider.

“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice.  But these proposals deserve a vote.  Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun — more than a thousand,” said Obama.  “Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  In fact, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.

“But we were never sent here to be perfect.  We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”

Take Action: Tell Congress No More Cuts to Education