Detective Eddie and the Case of the Missing ESEA SOTU Mention

As you may know, last night was the SOTU. I spent more time than one might expect attempting to convert that into a funny, education-related acronym, but had little success. For the record, I blame my failure on my age and innocent youth. Regardless, no joke for you today.

But hey, maybe I don’t need to be cracking jokes. After all, the president’s State of the Union address is pretty important. It hints at future battles, helps set the tone for the year, and provides a little more detail on potential policies in the pipeline.  Most importantly, it outlines the president’s priorities. Maybe that’s why I found it so noticeable that K-12 education—and particularly the massive ESEA reauthorization fight brewing in D.C.—received little more than a rhetorical nod.

Oh, and in case you missed the address, the video is below. If you aren’t interested in the full hour-long speech, Education Week put together a decent synopsis that you may find helpful.

There’s undoubtedly some peripheral stuff that we can talk about, like increases in federal funding flowing to states with large early learning programs and a small increase in Title I funding (outlined in supporting documents and statements). We could also spend some time chewing on the president’s proposed $60 billion plan to make the first two years of community college free for most students (Hint: It doesn’t pay for itself). Or we could talk about the somewhat glib implication that American education is fine because graduation rates and test score gains in some grades have improved somewhat. Hey, I could even give the president a nod for making a statement in support of student data privacy.

But what I find more interesting is not the presence of these things. It’s the absence of any mention of the ongoing, and increasingly heated, ESEA reauthorization debate. We’ve talked about this before, but things are further along now. There is now a discussion draft of a bill circulating in the U.S. Senate. I haven’t had time to fully review the draft, but after the president’s speech, I’m not sure I need to—his lack of acknowledgement didn’t exactly fill me with confidence in the effort’s chances for success.

My take is this: President Obama’s lack of even the slightest nod toward ESEA reauthorization hints at an uphill struggle on ESEA reauthorization. Many education scholars, including Rick Hess (one of my favorites), predicted that the president would use the speech to call for bipartisan accord around changes to No Child Left Behind. The fact that he didn’t may mean that the fight for reauthorization will be even harder than anticipated.

It may be that POTUS (sorry, no funny acronym joke here, either) is privy to some internal goings-on that I’m not, or it may be that the he does not believe current efforts to reduce testing burdens or make other changes will result in a bill he can support (this is a distinct possibility after Arne Duncan’s recent speech). Or, as folks in other corners have pointed out, it may be that the president simply has other priorities. Maybe he’s just playing to a different audience. Colorado’s own Representative Jared Polis was quoted by Huffington Post as being pleased with the president’s new plans, after all.

Yet the uncertainty over ESEA reauthorization has important implications for the sticky testing conversation in Colorado. The state simply can’t maneuver much around current federal minimum testing requirements, and uncertain federal outcomes could have serious consequences for this year’s legislative party.

For now, I guess we wait and see.