Plans for States in the State of the Union

While President Barack Obama’s third State of the Union address Tuesday focused primarily on familiar themes of economic recovery, the president tipped his hat to some new policies that could have a major impact on states, specifically education reform, infrastructure and hydraulic fracturing.

Obama announced a goal to increase the minimum student dropout age to 18 or until they graduate.

”When students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” Obama said. “When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state—every state—requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

Most states require students to remain in school until they turn 16 or 17, but some already require a student remain enrolled until they turn 18. The President also addressed the educator side of education reform.

“Teachers matter,” Obama said. “So instead of bashing them or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

This is not as much of a new direction of federal education policy as it is a reiteration of points the Obama administration has made for quite some time. But the focus on allowing teachers the flexibility to stop teaching to tests, combined with the raised minimum dropout age, lays out a clear framework of the priorities the administration will advocate for in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The president also touched on higher education reform. Discussing both the need to increase financial incentives for people to attend college as well as the need to cut tuition costs, Obama described the state role: “States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.”

This is certainly something most Americans can relate to, considering that this school year, the average cost to attend a four-year college is $8,244 at public schools and $28,500 at private nonprofit schools, according to the College Board. Given the scale of the ongoing state fiscal crisis, however, the pressure to cut higher education spending is unlikely to let up anytime soon. 

Obama also mentioned the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. “I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects,” he said. “But you (Congress) need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”

While infrastructure remains a top priority for states, the president’s proposal lacks a realistic pathway to success. Republicans in Congress already have expressed reluctance to use obligated defense funds for any purpose other than to pay down the debt. No one on either side of the aisle is eager to fight another Recovery Act-type battle for infrastructure dollars when Congress is not even able to pass a long term surface transportation bill.

One new position Obama highlighted was a favorability to hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural gas extraction process known as fracking under debate in several states.

“My administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy,” Obama said. “Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.”

While this is the first time the president has so openly endorsed hydrofracking, he did so with the caveat that federal regulators will monitor the process closely. Considering that natural gas is typically extracted from deep rock deposits that can span several states, this makes sense, but again, the details will make or break the fiscal feasibility for states.

Overall, Obama delivered some optimism to states in his State of the Union address, with a refocus of priorities and announcement of some new ideas. Today though, more than ever, the feasibility for states is all about the bottom line, so it is important for state leaders to pay close attention to the president’s programs as they are rolled out.