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State of the Union Wish List

Tonight, President Obama will give the first State of the Union address of his second term in office, an opportunity for the president to raise issues critical to improving our nation’s schools, one of the most important domestic policy opportunities of our time. No other investment available can simultaneously enhance the workforce of the future, help rebuild the infrastructure of the present, and wipe out the civil rights injustices of the recent past. And while the president has a lot to cover during his speech, we hope he takes time to address education, because if we fail to fix our failing schools, if we fail to replace our public education system, We the People may soon find that we are fundamentally unequipped to govern ourselves let alone to provide governance to others we thought in greater need.

With that in mind, here’s what we hope to hear in tonight’s SOTU:

1) Work Across All Education Sectors: We hope that the president will announce plans by his administration to hear from a range of voices and ideas from cities and communities, including those who represent the grassroots in the school choice and charter school communities. In the first term, the Obama Administration talked a lot about others “collaborating” and “getting along” with unions. We urge President Obama to send a signal to all the people advocating critical school choices for children — be they digital, in private schools or public schools — that this second term will be more about good ideas, no matter where they come from, than about special interests, even if they did help fund his reelection. Likewise, it’s time for the president to firmly tell the teachers unions that protecting mediocrity month after month is unacceptable, not understandable but unacceptable. For a crash course on the issues, we offer a Mandate for Change.

2) Encourage Parent Power:  The president has often said that parents must be more responsible for their children’s education. That’s true, but difficult to do when they have no say in how or where their children are educated. Some states, like Indiana and Florida, are providing the most expansive options to parents, though even the best have a long way to go. In his speech, we urge the president to encourage parents to learn about their power, or if they have little, to take action to get it at the local level. Moreover, it’s time for the Obama Administration to reward states which offer children in failing schools quality alternatives among both public and private schools. President Obama’s administration should reward not just the talk, but the walk, as the first Race to the Top grants failed to do. More federal incentives to encourage states to adopt meaningful charter laws that provide for multiple authorizers while resisting the temptation to micromanage state processes is one way. A very bold move would be to finally advocate portability of all Title 1 funds, so that no matter where a child attends school, they are treated equally for the purposes of federal funds, and not discriminated against simply because their parents had the opportunity to send them to a better school. Parent Power is vital. Learn more here, at The Parent Power Index.

3) Restore Sound Federal Policy: A final area for refocusing federal effort is where waivers and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are concerned. NCLB, while imperfect, is an example of how federal funds can influence local behavior. Before NCLB was enacted, officials masked data showing schools failing despite billions of dollars in funding. The legislation was a response to state and local leaders abdicating their responsibility. But in implementing the law, states encouraged test obsession over what the legislation intended: quality teaching and monitoring of results. Rather than continuing to give waivers, as the Obama Administration did in the first term, the president should focus on reforming NCLB to ensure more flexibility in approach, so that Washington, while not the arbiter of best practice, ensures adherence to high standards and accountability for precious tax dollars spent. We urge the president to stop the waivers for good faith promises of effort, and instead, start rewarding success. For states still sitting on funds from the first rounds with no mark of success in implementing fully promised reforms or scaling student achievement, it’s time to ask for the taxpayers money back.

In the box. Finally, a few recommendations for people we’d like to see as a guest in the First Lady’s box tonight:

  • Kevin Chavous – A stalwart Democrat, former DC City Councilman and champion of children, whose tireless efforts have led to charter schools in DC, vouchers in Louisiana and countless children having better educational options across the country.
  • Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett – Throw an olive branch across the aisle and have this radio personality, author and founder of the modern day movement for choice, content and character help you devise a strategy for the next four years.
  • A tireless educator and parent activist who started a school for disadvantaged children, giving their parents real options and power and their children a leg up would be great. We can’t give you one name — there are thousands out there. Just call us!

And good luck tonight, Mr. President!