SOTU 2016: President Obama's Education Legacy

Tonight President Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address, where he will reflect on the incredible progress made during the past seven years of his administration and lay out an ambitious agenda for his final year in office. It's a chance for us as a nation to reflect, to appreciate how far we've come, and to look seriously at what we need to accomplish in the months ahead.

I look back on January 20th, 2009 with great pride as an American, as a father of two beautiful babies, as an education and civil rights advocate, as a Democrat, and as a black man. Watching an African American get sworn into our highest office was nothing short of historic, and he carried with him the promise of a hopeful nation desperately looking for change in the midst of two wars and the worst financial crisis since the great depression.

While I'm sure the weight of America's high expectations was crushing at times, I can safely say that President Obama will end his time in office with one of the greatest and enduring legacies in modern times. From domestic policy, to international relations, to climate change and the economy - President Obama's tenure has been tremendously successful.

But the one thing that makes me most proud to call him my President is his tireless commitment to improving the quality of public education for every child in every corner of this country. It's been a truly progressive education reform agenda that put the needs of kids first, fearlessly taking on a broken status quo in the face of incredible odds and heavy political headwinds.

True change and meaningful progress isn't easy, but this administration hasn't backed down from the challenge. From K-12 to higher education, President Obama has driven billions of dollars back into our classrooms, strengthened standards and accountability, addressed racial and socio-economic inequities, and started to reverse the troubling trend of American students falling behind their international peers.

As a result, we've seen record graduation rates, more high-quality public school options that empower parents to send their child to the best school that fits their needs, and substantive benchmarks that allow parents to measure progress and success - just to name a few.

It is the dual investment in unprecedented resources coupled with common sense policy reforms that truly sets President Obama's education agenda apart. This powerful combination has helped our students, our educators, and our schools and has created a framework for moving forward and creating a system that works for all families.

Unprecedented Resource Investment

  • Record investment in K-12 education. Under the American Recovery and Investment Act, President Obama invested $100 billion in education, from Pre-K through college, the largest single investment of any President in history. One in eight Recovery Act dollars devoted was to education, more than any other domestic policy area.

  • Record investment in student financial aid. President Obama took action to help ensure that a college degree doesn't leave our young people crippled with debt and deter many qualified students from attending in the first place. This administration has fought hard to double Pell Grant funding and more than triple higher education tax credits.
  • Record investment in replicating and expanding high-quality public charter schools. This Administration has distributed over $266 million to replicate and expand public charter schools that have a proven track record of high performance and student growth - something no other President has ever done. Under the recent bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), another $80 million has been allocated to expand the Charter School Program this year - bringing the total to $333 million in 2016 alone.
  • Common Sense Policy Reforms

    • Raising standards for schools through Race to the Top. Race to the Top linked increased funding with meaningful reforms that raised standards and increased accountability - from lifting caps on the number of public charter schools, to teacher evaluation based in part on K-12 student achievement, to new data systems.

  • Turning around the lowest-performing schools. This administration launched School Improvement Grants, a multi-billion dollar program for the bottom-performing 5 percent of schools that helped recipients implement much-needed reform strategies like new curricula and reorganization. This administration has made it a priority to both identify and address the gaps in our public education system so that every student in every neighborhood has access to the quality education they deserve.
  • Holding higher education programs accountable. The Administration has cracked down on predatory for-profit colleges and trade schools, as well as underperforming teacher preparation programs. New gainful employment and program integrity regulations cut off federal financial aid eligibility from for-profits that leave students with an inadequate education and staggering debt they cannot repay. Right now, the administration is also working on new teacher education regulations that cut off federal TEACH grant aid to underperforming schools of education.
  • While all of this looks good on paper, the true measure of success is what these changes have helped our kids and our schools achieve. The results are undeniable - here's a sampling of the impact that President Obama's education legacy is having on our students:

    • Over 400 new public charter schools have been created under the Replication and Expansion for High-Quality Charter Schools Program, for a projected total of 278,000 new high-quality seats. 82% of students enrolled in these high-performing public charters are low-income and 90% are students of color.

  • The 4-year high school graduation rate has risen from 73% at beginning of Obama's term to a record-high of 82%.
  • Underrepresented minority college enrollment increased 20% between 2008 and 2014, with the number of racial minorities enrolled in college immediately after high school up over 700,000.
  • 22 states now tie information on how teachers perform in K-12 classrooms back to their teacher preparation programs - up from only six states in 2011.
  • 2.7 million additional working class families receive Pell Grant aid, and the maximum Pell Grant has gone up by 25%.
  • 8 million families receive larger higher education tax benefits, and 4 million receive refundable education tax credit.
  • Predatory for-profit colleges are being held responsible for defrauding students into an inadequate education and insurmountable debt. One of the largest for-profit chains, Corinthian College Corp (Everest College), was recently shut down, and the Department of Education is actively pursuing others like it.
  • For-profit colleges' spending on instructional services is up over 25% across the board, allocating more funds to educational quality over profits and marketing.
  • In seven short years, and with one more to go, the progress that President Obama and his team have accomplished is both stunning and inspiring. I couldn't be prouder that he has carried on the Democratic Party's legacy of fighting for kids, fighting for social justice, fighting for the voiceless and the disinherited.

    Access to a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time, and this President, our first African American president, has had the courage to take it on and make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of American schoolchildren - especially students of color and those coming from the nation's poorest districts.

    But, this fight is not over and is not likely to be any time soon. There's still much more to be done to ensure that every child in this country gets the high-quality education they deserve. As we face an important election this fall, our next president must be ready to build on this hard-won progress and continue to work day in and day out on behalf of our students. The American people get it - they're on the side of these progressive, common sense education reforms that get results, and come November let's all make our voices heard loud and clear.

    Looking at my own children, looking at the scores of brilliant kids running around my neighborhood in Newark, I know to my core that there's too much at stake to sit by and do nothing. We've been blessed with bold and transformative leadership in President Obama, and our kids deserve nothing less of their future leaders. I can't wait to turn on my television with the rest of you tonight to hear what President Obama has in store for the final 12 months of this historic administration.