State of the Union 2014: Obama’s Opportunity Agenda Starts with Public Education

Schott Foundation State of the Union Response

Matters of fairness, opportunity and inequality were center stage at this week’s State of the Union address. President Obama rightfully pushed for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, and extended unemployment insurance as immediate steps that can be taken to help Americans right away.

But it was the President’s focus on education that brought home how one of our most important public institutions is suffering from the same inequities. Only 41 percent of 4-year-olds and 14 percent of 3-year-olds attend publicly-funded preschool. As he said, “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.” He is absolutely right: high-quality early education more than repays the dollars we spend on it, in the form of higher graduation rates, less crime and incarceration, and higher future earnings.

For the past seven years the Schott Foundation has worked to build the supports necessary to provide all students an opportunity to learn. Closing the opportunity gap, through policies like early education, fair discipline, and equitable funding, is the only proven way to close our achievement gap.

Systemic causes of poverty still afflict us—a full 48% of public school students are in low-income households—which forces our education system and more specifically teachers and administrators on the front lines of ameliorating these  wealth disparities. That’s why the President’s focus on providing all students access to high quality early education and extending health and income supports to families are all part of providing students an opportunity to learn.  What happens to students before and after they leave the schools also impacts their opportunity to learn.

But for many students, the challenges they face don’t end there. The structures of institutional discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation must be confronted with the same forcefulness. In particular we’re glad that the President brought up the unique barriers facing young men of color in our schools. Schott’s biennial report on the state of Black male students focuses on not only academic achievement and graduation rates, but also looks at disparities in disciplinary action. Nearly one out of every six Black students was suspended in 2009-10, compared to one in 20 white students. Black and Latino students are also likely to be punished more severely than white students for minor misbehavior, contributing to the achievement gap and high dropout rates for these students.

President Obama promised “a year of action” and while he faces a recalcitrant Congress, more than once during his address he told us that he will act without them to the extent he can. It’s a lesson we should all remember: the problems are too urgent for us to wait. We join the President’s call for a year of action and will take up the task of creating solutions and build the grassroots movements of students, parents, teachers, and community members that can assert power and move policy.

As organizer Phillip Agnew puts it in the Dream DefendersState of the Youth Address:

“The only way we can overcome the debilitating deficiencies of our country is through a mass movement of the people. We must be about the business of building power: person by person, corner by corner, block by block. It’s up to us.”

The Schott Foundation remains committed to resourcing campaigns and strategies at the state and local level that will give students access to high quality early education, wrap around supports, supportive school climates and equitable resources. As we were told Tuesday night, achieving our vision for a better country will be an uphill battle: “The America we want for our kids—a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us—none of it is easy.” We embrace the President’s “opportunity agenda” as the Schott Foundation continues the fight to provide all students an opportunity to learn.