Early learning absent in State of the Union

I wanted to take a day to let Tuesday's State of the Union speech percolate before I reacted. I think most would agree, it wasn't President Obama's most powerful speech, particularly coming on the heels of his highly memorable address on the tragedy in Tucson. Some called the speech "workmanlike" -- it hit on some mostly noncontroversial points in a clear and compelling -- if not overly moving -- way. I would agree.

The president again came back to education as a central theme. While education is often a highly politicized issue in Washington, it has also been a tried and true subject for State of the Union speeches. You can always count on bipartisan applause when you're talking about expanding opportunity and making America first in the world again (though there are some who refuse to believe we ever slipped.) Last year, he called for reforming education from "cradle to career," but this time the president did not bring up early education, or the fact that too many of our children begin kindergarten unprepared to learn. 

While he praised Race to the Top reforms that have driven education innovation in many states (to only tepid applause), he did not push hard on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- the law formerly known as "No Child Left Behind" -- though he did say it should be made more "flexible," presumably to address concerns about rigid teaching to the test. To many advocates' consternation, he did not make a plug for adding more support for early education into the law. Nor did he tout his Early Learning Challenge Fund, which was dropped from the health care reform bill last year. The most controversial part of his education message was his call to Congress to pass the DREAM Act to ensure that young people with undocumented immigration status can complete their degrees without fear of being deported -- a very important cause that may languish in this bitterly divided Congress.

President Obama's other points on education were important, if familiar: the importance of parents' engagement in their children's success; the call for more young people to become teachers; and the need for more highly skilled college graduates to help America compete. Who could disagree with a $10,000 tax credit for college tuition? Well, they would be the people wondering how we're going to pay for it, particularly as the president's other major focus was on cutting spending and reducing the deficit.

All in all, it was a good speech and was particularly reassuring to some conservatives. But to me, personally, it did not go nearly far enough. What could be a better investment in our future than investing in the healthy development and education of our youngest citizens? How can we expect to become a nation of college graduates if children entering kindergarten do not have the basic building blocks to learn and thrive? Given that Congress can be expected to water down the president's education proposals, this was his chance to go big and go bold. This was a missed opportunity.