SOTU: Good on Education

by Frederick M. Hess

The president’s remarks on education were vague and clichéd, but his vaguenesses were admirable and his clichés were sensible. Moreover, in a pleasant surprise, his bracing words were unencumbered by calls for new spending or new programs.

President Obama led off by talking not about schools or spending, but about families and parental responsibility, noting: “It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”

He had admirably firm words for schools — words it would have been startling to hear a national Democratic figure utter even four or five years ago. “When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.” (I’d quibble with the president’s characterization of RTT, but the sentiment is admirable enough.) The president then doubled down, declaring, “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”

It is unlikely that the president’s request for Congress to “replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids” will come to fruition this year, despite the applause that line got — but the charge is a starting point that conservatives can comfortably embrace.

All that said, there were still plenty of disappointments. The president was disingenuous when he characterized the under-the-radar nationalization of student lending (in the Health Care Reform Act) as entailing the end of “unwarranted taxpayer subsidies” to banks. He was unconvincing when he blandly announced that we’re helping workers retool for a fast-changing economy by “revitalizing America’s community colleges.” It was a shame he didn’t say anything about the need to boost productivity or address unaffordable pensions. And it would’ve been nice to see the president suggest that his SOTU paeans to free enterprise, innovation, and technology also applied to education.

But let’s not be greedy. It was as much as a realistic conservative would have predicted, and more than one really had a right to expect.

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