Obama's Challenge

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Last night’s briskly-delivered State of the Union address capped a dizzying few months for President Obama. He was looking out at 84 new GOP House of Representatives members -- 63 of whom were occupying seats previously held by Democrats. However, he was enjoying a rebound in personal popularity, coming off a surprisingly productive lame-duck session, and hoping to sustain and leverage the shift in national mood following the Tucson tragedy.

It was not the night to play the usual SOTU games – how many times did he mention “X” – and so the absence of the words “charter schools” didn’t bother me a bit. The key points on education weren’t drawn from a laundry list of programs; instead he tried to frame the challenge and leave the details for the upcoming budget message. Some of the key education passages:

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers and sell their products wherever there’s an Internet connection.
Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.
Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us –- as citizens, and as parents –- are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

The task for charter folks is to show that our schools are part of the solution...that our kids leave 12th grade ready for college --and ready to succeed in college and beyond. Let's show that we’re using our freedom not just to get rid of paperwork, but to equip kids with the knowledge and habits of mind to lead an international economy.

And if a charter school is part of the problem, we need to take action. Now.

Without saying exactly how, the President did also say that “Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.” I trust that means the Administration will continue pressing states for facilities aid, fiscal equity and an end to caps. It will be interesting to see how those proposals fare in a Congress that generally wants to expand state rather than federal authority.

By the way, today’s New York Times has a cool seating chart illustrating the "new civility," with some odd couples listening to the speech: Schumer and Coburn; Patty Murray and John Cornyn; Louie Gohmert and Carolyn Maloney. Let’s hope the era of good feelings persists.

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