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Letter to President Obama on the State of the Union

January 24, 2014

Dear Mr. President:

As you prepare to deliver the State of the Union address, I would like to take this opportunity to convey to you the hopes and concerns of our three million members, and what I believe they would like to hear from their President. 

We all know you took office in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The road back from that has been difficult, and while progress has been made much more remains to be done. One in five children live in poverty. More than 2.3 million children live with a long-term unemployed parent – triple the number just five years ago. The average American household made less in 2012 than it did in 1989. For our nation’s educators, these “statistics” are all too often the students they strive to help each day.

We can and must do better. We need an economy that works for everyone – an economy built on the truly American ideal that everyone deserves a fair shot and an opportunity to succeed, an economy in which those who work hard will be able to provide for themselves and their families. Each of us must do our part to help this nation achieve the shared prosperity we all seek. 

A strong and fair economy that works for all starts with a strong and equitable education system that offers opportunity for all. Educators know that 60 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, too many inequities still exist. “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments ... it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,” the Court said. “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Those words are as true today as they were 60 years ago, when Chief Justice Earl Warren read them aloud in our nation’s highest court. On behalf of our nation’s students and educators, I urge you to help move our nation forward with priorities that would individually help address the scourge of child poverty and collectively transform the entire economy for future generations:

  • Give all children access to high-quality early education. The first years of a child’s life – when the brain is still forming – are a vital window of opportunity. Research shows that children who attend high-quality prekindergarten programs are less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, need special education, or get in trouble with the law later on. High-quality prekindergarten programs also bring enormous economic benefits. They can pay for themselves in as little as one year and, over decades, save the states and the federal government billions of dollars. The eventual benefit-to-cost ratio can be as high as 8-to-1, according to the Economic Policy Institute. NEA supports your proposals to make high-quality early childhood education accessible to students from low- and moderate-income families, not just those who can afford to pay for it.
  • Make higher education more affordable. NEA believes that anyone who is qualified and interested in post-secondary education should have the opportunity to pursue it, regardless of ability to pay. Congress passed the original GI bill because it recognized that higher education is good for students, good for the economy, and good for society at large. NEA applauds the focus you have placed on making higher education in all its forms more affordable and accessible – community and traditional four-year colleges, as well as career and technical education that equips students to succeed in life and the competitive global economy of the 21st century.
  • Raise the federal minimum wage. In 1960, a single minimum wage worker earned enough to keep a family of two out of poverty in every state; today, there are only four states where the minimum wage is enough to cover a living wage, meaning one in which a worker can afford food, housing, utilities and other basic expenses for their family. Every day, educators see too many students coming to school hungry even though their parents are working in multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet. Education support professionals would be helped by raising the minimum wage as well – incredibly, 15 percent of the food service workers in our schools are eligible for the SNAP program. NEA supports proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Doing so would significantly help students, their families, and the thousands of educators who teach their students about hard work and playing by the rules every day. As educators, we should be able to say with confidence: If you work, you won’t be poor. It is long past time to make that statement true. 
  • Fix our broken immigration system. Every day, educators see firsthand the profound damage done to students, families, and communities by the current dysfunctional system. NEA supports comprehensive immigration reform that includes a realistic path to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring citizens who call America home; that incorporates the DREAM Act, which provides an expedited path to college and citizenship for the many talented students who have grown up here and have so much to offer our nation; that continues and expands Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); and that preserves family unity.
  • Close corporate tax loopholes. For our economy to work for everyone, we need to amend the tax code to ensure that corporations and the wealthiest contribute their fair share – to grow our economy by growing the middle class. At home, families are struggling to hold on to what they have. At school, students are confronting cuts to the critical resources they need to succeed. Meanwhile, special exceptions allow income inequality to continue growing. Corporations are reporting record profits, yet are taxed at historically low rates. That must change if the American dream is to endure. Let’s start by closing corporate tax loopholes that encourage the opposite of what is needed to restore the middle class.

Policies built around these goals would demonstrate commitment to rewarding and encouraging hard work and leveling the playing field, not complicity in rigging the system for the powerful. We must help deliver on the promise that America is for everyone, not just the wealthy few. Above all, we must restore faith in the promise of equal opportunity that is the bedrock on which our nation was founded.  

On behalf of the National Education Association’s three million members and the students they serve, I pledge to support and work with you to fulfill these goals and make America the land of opportunity we all envision.  

Most respectfully,

Dennis Van Roekel
National Education Association